I was talking with a friend of mine about books the other week and we were comparing reading lists for the next few weeks — or months or, possibly, years — and one of my entries was China Mieville’s Kraken which I explained I was reading as slowly as possible because I have this habit of driving straight through his books and then realising, ‘Oh, crap. Now I’m done and he won’t write another book for four years. Crap.’
And then I started thinking about how many other books I have by authors that I always say I love that are tucked away in spare corners or starred on reading lists and have been like that for quite some time now. There’s Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book — found on the Brattle Books $1 cart and now sitting quietly on my desk with a business card as a bookmark about 100 pages in. And it’s been like that for a few weeks. There’s Mieville’s King Rat — sitting on the bookshelf next to Iron Council, The Scar, and Perdido Street Station (all of which I have read, thank you very much, more than once) — which I started sometime last fall, loved — but never finished. David Wellington’s 23 Hours, the latest Laura Caxton vampire mystery — up on the shelf. Got through about four chapters of that and bogged. Neal Stephenson’s System of the World — got about half-way through that one, then stuck nice and fast, just like Root in the mud around Cambridge. The top example of all this? Kage Baker’s No Less Than Gods which I lucked into at the Brookline Public Library and haven’t even opened.
And I can’t explain why I haven’t picked up any of these and gone through them in a matter of hours. I liked them all, very much, enough to pay out money for copies — which I never then touch. With the Stephenson, you could make a good argument that it’s to do with length or complexity, were it not for the fact that I also own and have read several times Quicksilver, The Confusion, and Anathem. Not to mention Diamond Age and Snow Crash — both of which are substantially shorter but no less complex. Stephenson makes no real concession to ignorance on the part of the reader or length of the work; he’s gonna go as fast as he’s gonna go and you’d really better just learn to keep up.
So what is it that keeps me from making the pot of tea and going to town? Well, partly it’s a desire not to admit that the fun is over: if I read No Less Than Gods, I’ll have to admit that there’s only one other new Baker I’ll get a chance to read ever. And I’m pretty sure the other one is set in her fantasy world — which I love! — but which isn’t a Company novel. No more Mendoza; no more Lewis; no more Joseph. Who wants to admit something like that?! If I go ahead and work my way through System of the World, sure, there might be a great happy ending — but there’s be no more travelling with Jack; no more watching Eliza outsmart French nobility; no more rooting for Daniel to struggle his way successfully through the complexities of other people’s lives.
You can always go back and reread — Lord knows I have and I do — but it’s never quite the same as the first discovery when you’re still trying to figure it out one jump ahead of the storyteller and you’re so proud when you do but then you have to try to keep one jump ahead — and ooh, look! a new character — he seems kinda cool but maybe not — and maybe — hey! we knew he was a bad guy all along! damn it — we never trusted him! But no, wait a minute, wait a minute, maybe he’s just being used by — aha! the real bad guy! we knew it!
That’s never going to be as much fun the second time around.
On the other hand, it isn’t as if there isn’t fun stuff to find after that — I only figured out most of the subtext of Kage Baker’s Anvil of the World when I read it the third time around; the first two times, I was having too much fun with the semi-demonic sorcerous lordling, the assassin-turned-hotel-owner, and the free-spirit-turned-hotel-chef. Similarly, the subplot of Neil Gaiman’s Study in Emerald totally slipped by me until I hit the end and went, “Wait a mi—” and swore a lot and then read it again.
So, on the third hand, if you don’t read, you don’t find out. And I like to think that what I’m actually doing is waiting for the right moment; one day, I will sit down, and my hand will fall on my copy of The City & The City and I will think, “Yes, absolutely.” And it will be great.
Now all I have to do is dodge spoilers until then.