Friday, 26 November 2021

Jumping in at the Deep End - On Starting Reading a Series Halfway Through

When I was about 10 or so a friend of mine came to school one day with a book he'd got from the local library. It was something called The Fellowship of the Ring, and it was by the same person who had written The Hobbit. My friend told me it was good, and I remember being spellbound by the cover, which seemed to hint at something beautiful, sophisticated and strange:



The problem was, my friend had borrowed the only copy from the library, and I didn't have the money to buy it for myself. So I did the next best thing and borrowed what I was told by the librarian was "the sequel", The Two Towers, instead. 

I sometimes wonder if this unorthodox way of coming to The Lord of the Rings is what resulted in it having captivated me ever since. There are certain advantages to coming to a series in the second or third volume, rather than the first. Usually, you'll begin in media res, for one thing, giving a feeling of being swept along in the narrative right from the start. (That's certainly the case with The Lord of the Rings; you couldn't get a more different experience to the sedate, extended opening to The Fellowship of the Ring than starting off at the top of the Falls of Rauros with Aragorn hunting orcs.) 

But really, the value of reading a series of books this way is how it stimulates the brain. Second volumes contain little infodump, forcing the new reader to fill in huge gaps in her knowledge with her sheer imagination; they are full of hints and allusions to what came before, the meaning of which can only be the subject of wild speculation; they require the reader not just to imagine, but also in part to create her own version of whatever "Volume I" contained. What is more, they require her to keep this alternative conception, this through-the-looking-glass version of the first part of the story, constantly updated because of its contingency on new information uncovered in the course of reading the sequels. Who is Aragorn? You start off The Two Towers with first on idea, then another, and then another again, and, lacking a clear idea of his origins, you have to mould and shape the person you understand him to be in your mind as you read. If anything, this exercise makes you more engaged and focused than you would otherwise be; you have to work at piecing together the puzzle - like a detective story for the imagination. 

I haven't made a habit of skipping first volumes, exactly, but my experience with The Lord of the Rings was borne out by jumping in at the deep end with series such as The Many-Coloured Land, Sorcery!, the Night's Dawn trilogy, a few of the Moorcock series, and other relatively mediocre fare that have been much enlivened by the exercise. The next time you see a multivolume epic fantasy series sitting on the shelves of your local bookshop or library, give it a whirl and launch yourself into things halfway through. You may find yourself being pleasantly surprised. 

32 comments:

  1. Great idea. I love picking up random fantasy novels at the used book shop for the same reason.

    Game of Thrones strikes me as exception. The first book is really great (IMO). The sequels, not so much. Same with Earthsea. Same with Horus Rising, which promises so much but the Heresy series just doesn't come close to delivering on. Also contains one of my favourite lines in all genre fiction. Again, bailed on that series quickly.

    I do think I'd be more likely to re-read my favourite mid-series book than I am the first, despite these exceptions. I love re-reading the later Discworld books, esp the Guards. Dawn Treader is my favourite Narnia.

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    1. Yeah, Game of Thrones itself is such a brilliant beginning to a series, and actually manages to capture the feeling of starting off in the middle of something.

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  2. I must have done this time after time as a youngster at the library. Even if I had the wit occasionally to check the first few pages in case it was part of a series, well, there was no guarantee I'd be able to get the preceding books - who knew if the library had them, pocket money alone wouldn't cover books at the rate I was reading them, and in any case I wanted something to read now.

    And now I go online and see people discussing [Franchise] with all sorts of concerns about where to start reading or what to focus on or asking confused questions about a Ch. 1 twist - and while it's nice to have people divert you from the real duds, have these chaps (of whatever age) never had to jump into a completely unknown book? This is a 200 page pulp, not War and Peace - you won't drown in it. Ah, well. Perhaps they will get stuck for a week in a holiday cottage with no internet and an assortment of mismatched lurid paperbacks.

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    1. I think it has something to do with not experiencing what it is like to go to the library and cast yourself at the whim of fate - utterly dependent on what other people have borrowed, and what the librarian has ordered. The local library where I grew up seemed to specialise in only having certain, apparently random, volumes in particular series. It had volume 5 of the Wheel of Time series, for instance, but none of the first four.

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  3. It's not uncommon for Japanese light novels to market themselves with their newest releases whenever an anime is released, expecting the reader to go back and read the older volumes only if the current one is a big enough hook. This has an interesting effect where most series read in a way not dissimilar to old pulp novels - there is little to no info dump, but each novels generally tends to have "repeat" info as the trade-off for that.

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    1. Thinking about it, this is true of kids' cartoons in any culture/language. You don't need to have seen any other episode of, say, Thundercats to understand whatever one you happen to see first.

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  4. My friends know by heart my irate rant about Origin Stories in Popular Entertainment - I don't think they are *ever* necessary, for the reasons you describe.

    The classic example is Batman. We are shown everything we need to know about him in the 1-minute intro to the '90s animated series. No origin story necessary, just start the adventure, I get it.

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  5. What you did with The Lord of the Rings was essentially what Hemingway did with his stories and what Gordon Lish did to Raymond Carver's. Chop off the beginning (and, in some cases, the end)!

    As it's quite a well-established and successful literary technique, there should be no surprise that it works well when accidentally imposed on a text.

    I did much the same thing with Moorcock. The first of the Elric novels that I read was Stormbringer, which is the end of the (original) story and is much the better for having all the Melnibonean stuff in the background but only alluded to.

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    1. Yeah, I remember reading that about Carver. I think I've read all of Carver's work, poetry and prose, including the posthumous unpublished stuff.

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  6. Night's Dawn halfway through? Brave man. Upon reflection it might work. Its been a long time since I read it, but much of the initial book is focused around the mystery of what is being faced, while the second one goes full on Cloud-cookoo land with a revived Al Capone having a relationship with the pop starlet. Hamilton was slightly perverted but his universes and characters were always very refined and thought out.

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    1. Yeah, I did read the first volume too in the end. I think if I read Night's Dawn now I would find it cringeworthy but at 15 years old I thought it was the bee's knees.

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    2. Most of Space Opera has its season in spring I think. There is something about the scale, wonder and hyperbole that appeals to us when we are younger that is hard to sustain. Only extreme performance still dazzles.

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    3. Upon reflection, I am confident Dune and Hyperion would still hold up now, but can we conceive of others? Asher and Hamilton probably not, but what of Banks, Bear, Baxter and A. Reynolds? Dare we venture once again into the 6 book saga of Benford's Mechwars, and is there some ineffable sociological attractor that produces science fiction authors whose last names start with B at statistically improbable rates?

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    4. Dune would hold up I am sure. I am not a fan of Dan Simmons. I have never found his work interesting. Same with Banks. I actually have a hard time thinking of space operas I've actually enjoyed (Night's Dawn aside). The James Corey things are dreadful.

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    5. I remember reading Leviathan Wakes on the plane and it struck me how normie it was. Space Zombies, evil corporations, belt wars. Very light and blase. Simmons I find enjoyable, very intelligent and a natural storyteller, a good mixture between the literary and the scientific, and I suspect some Jack Vance influences.

      John C Wright's Count Down to the Eschaton is still fantastic, a weird mixture of R.A. Lafferty, First and Last Men and A.E. van Vogt. Heady!

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  7. I think it's also a good litmus test of the writer's abilities if you can pick up enough of what's going on for jumping in in the middle to be legible.

    I read the fifth book of the Percy Jackson series before books 3 and 4 and spent nearly all of it going "OK, story checks out, makes sense". Compare and contrast with Asimov's Caves of Steel series, which I do love dearly, but trying to read The Robots of Dawn without having read The Naked Sun is like having a stroke.

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    1. I think that is probably true, although I don't know if I could think of enough examples to really take a definite view.

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  8. This is the way I started my love with Harry Potter book series. When I was only at the beginning of my elementary school there were this huge buzz around this books (I have fortunate time to be roughly around the age of characters when they were published in my country). And I get my hands at second and fourth books first (fourth was newest back then and fifth didn't come out yet).

    This is probably the only way to save sanity and money if you want to somehow follow mainstream comic superhero universes. You should just jump in and try to treat all hints to previous works as if they were just background information.

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    1. That works with the films as well. I think I saw them in more or less a random order. It helps that they are very episodic and follow a particular formula, of course.

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    2. Earlier books especially, but later books bit by bit break from the formula and incorporate more background information and continuity.

      Sometimes I feel that basically it's the only way we can experience Disco Elysium. Which plot takes place in this rich world with history and we don't have access to creators D&D campaign when Revachol was created and experienced by handful of people.

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    3. Harry Potter series is unique in that she wrote each book for the same audience as they matured. So the first is far more of a kids book than the last which is an enormous achievement. Jumping around could leave one wondering how young kids read a book with such dark themes.

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  9. This is the way I started my love with Harry Potter book series. When I was only at the beginning of my elementary school there were this huge buzz around this books (I have fortunate time to be roughly around the age of characters when they were published in my country). And I get my hands at second and fourth books first (fourth was newest back then and fifth didn't come out yet).

    This is probably the only way to save sanity and money if you want to somehow follow mainstream comic superhero universes. You should just jump in and try to treat all hints to previous works as if they were just background information.

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  10. I recall my first exposure to Thomas Covenant was Book 6: White Gold Wielder, the last book of the second trilogy. It definitely got me hooked in a way starting with Book 1 probably would not have. So I think you are onto something here.

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  11. Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creator of Dark Souls, has stated that he was inspired to create the series' famously ambiguous and esoteric lore thanks to his childhood experience of reading Lord of the Rings in the original English when he knew very little English. He ended up skipping through parts he couldn't make sense of and filling the gaps in with his imagination.

    I also have to imagine this must have been what watching the original Star Wars trilogy felt like before the prequels came out, and seeing they were numbered Episodes IV, V, and VI. What were I through III? There was a sense of mystique around them, and the events that happened prior to A New Hope. I suspect that the negative response to the prequels was born as much from how they failed to live up to the stories fans had been creating in their minds for years as much as from the actual quality of the films themselves.

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    1. Yeah, definitely. I must have written about this on the blog before but I think the story is that George Lucas watched Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress, really loved the feeling of not quite knowing what was going on, and tried to replicate that in A New Hope by deliberately avoiding infodump.

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    2. When A New Hope first came out in 1977 it was not Star Wars Episode Iv: A New Hope. it was Star Wars. Lucas re-released it when it was clear a sequel was gonna be a hit and on the re-release he updated the name to give that Flash Gordon Serial vibe. But you'all knew that so I'll go away now.

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  12. Oh good, so it's not just me. Sometimes it's fine (and a bit of brain stretching is good); occasionally the first 50 pages will be catching up with all the established characters, and nothing *happens*

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  13. This was a fairly common "practice" of mine in my youth. I started the Narnia series with "The Magician's Apprentice," began Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising with "Silver on the Tree," and Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series with "Castle Llyr." I'm sure there are others ("The City of Gold and Lead," Elizabeth Boyer's Wizard and Warlock, etc.).

    Back in THE OLD DAYS you were generally picking up books via the local library. Sometimes, you wouldn't even realize a book was part of a series...marketing wasn't quite the same back then. In addition, books weren't always published with an idea to turning it into a seven-volume series...McKinnley wrote The Blue Sword years before The Hero & The Crown and MZB's Darkover novels are conspicuously non-chronological. It was just...a different time.

    And, yes, I'm sure that...for geezers like myself...it influences how we view fiction and (especially with review to role-playing) fantasy world building. Well, maybe.

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    1. The internet does exposed us to a lot of new things but the serendipity of finding a particular book in a library, unfiltered by algorithm (unless you count "what the librarian happened to order from the distributor") is hard to replicate nowadays. Other than actually going to a library, obviously.

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  14. Just a correction: the Lord of the Rings was never meant to be a series. Tolkien wrote it as one book, but the editor was scared by its length and took the questionable decision to split it.

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