Wednesday 18 June 2008

First Things First

Something on Susan Hill's blog the other day led me to think about the 'right' order to read an author's novels... obviously there is no single correct way to read an author (note my continuing, slowly, project Backwards With Daphne), but there might be methods more conducive to enjoyment and appreciation...

More specifically: should you read the best book first?

This makes an assumption, of course, that an author has a 'best' book. Perhaps it would just as well be replaced with the word 'favourite', because the dilemma is just the same. My initial response, on Susan's blog, was that reading the best/favourite novel first would lead to all subsequent reads being a disappointment - Lynne pointed out, in the same comments, that one might just give up after an average read. If you read an excellent novel, you'll continue with that author, even if there are a few duds or mediocre reads along the way.

Let me think. I've done this both ways. Barbara Comyns, for example - Our Spoons Came From
Woolworths was enjoyable, but I much preferred Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, which was on my shelf for years before I read it. Luckily Our Spoons was good enough for me to keep looking for more Comyns, though without any urgency - had it been a shade less enjoyable, I might not have bothered. On the other hand, as always, is Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. I've only read one other novel by him - Before I Go Hence - which was likeable enough, but nothing compared to Miss Hargreaves. If I'd read Before I Go Hence first, I probably wouldn't have bothered seeking out Miss Hargreaves - which might well be my favourite novel; certainly top five.

What to do! More importantly, what to recommend? If someone asks me about an author, should I send them towards the Pride and Prejudices or the Mansfield Parks? (Now, there's a cat among the pigeons!)


  1. You pose an interesting and important question, Simon, especially for those who choose set texts for schools. I had a brilliant, inspiring teacher for English 'O'levels (shows my age!) who selected 'Northanger Abbey' as our introduction to Austen and 'Great Expectations' as our Dickens novel. The other English set had 'Mansefield Park' and 'Bleak House' and hated them, probably never going on to explore further.

    I don't know if there is a right way for adults to approach an author. Personal interests and tastes vary so much.

  2. I doubt if there is a 'right' way to approach a writer's work, but I know that if I have loved a book I am much more willing to find what I love in other books by the same writer, even if they don't immediately show me what there is to love.

    So I think I'd prefer to begin with something wonderful, the 'best', and then read the rest.

  3. I will usually read the most acclaimed book first to see what the fuss is about, unless someone I know gives me a tip to check out the peripheral work because it's better. Anthony Burgess is an author like this. A Clockwork Orange isn't his best work at all, and a friend recommended that I check out other books first, so I did. I like A Clockwork Orange, of course, but I'm glad I read other things first because I won't fall into the trap of identifying Burgess only with that book.

  4. I don't like to think I only comment here to correct your spelling/grammar/punctuation, but 'their'? Really?

    They're just giving out first class degrees nowadays.

  5. With Jane Austen it would depend very much on the age of the prospective reader - I would steer teenagers straight towards Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, but a reader nearer my own age (nearly 30) would get firm instructions to read Persuasion first.

    I wouldn't recommend Mansfield Park as a first Austen to anybody, even though I can't decide whether it's my favourite, or whether Persuasion is just a shade better. Time enough for them to discover whether they like it later, and if they don't they might miss out on all the others through too early an exposure.

  6. It is an interesting question, and I'm not sure what the solution is either. I've started reading Angela Thirkell's books and I want to read them in order and have started to do so, yet I've also had people tell me don't start with the first, as it's not her best. Still, I'm willing to persevere. Then I see people who read a best book first and the next two may be let downs so they'll say no more by this author. I guess this is where you look for reviews from friends or trusted sources? If I really like an author, I'm willing to overlook a few clunkers.

  7. I struggle with this issue when I face a new author. Some authors, like Steinbeck, can be approached satisfactorily from any angle. On the other hand, super prolific writers like P.G. Wodehouse, who also had several different character sets, might be best approached in a more methodical manner. But really, who's to say?

  8. Whatever tickles your fancy I would say, which ever one 'speaks to you' - a couple of years ago I mentioned to a woman I met at a wedding that I had just read two Du Maurier books and she told me, in her most disdainful tone- that she only ever read one book per author ever - as if reading more than one was a waste of time...follow your instincts or failing that the blurb and cover...


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