I have a lot of books. Two questions people always ask me when they see my book collection: 1) have you read them all? and b) why do you keep them if you’ve read them?
The answer to the first question is: not yet. About 80%, perhaps.
And the second question: I might want to reread them one day.
Except, of course, rereading becomes increasingly less likely as the number of unread books I own grows. Yet every time I see my book-shelves, I always recognise that there are many I would indeed like to read again one day. Especially those I last read back in my teens.
Which is why I decided that my reading challenge for 2009 would be to reread those sf novels I remembered enjoying twenty years ago. I also wanted to know how I’d respond to them now. The twelve titles I chose were, I admit, somewhat arbitrary. There are a few I wish I’d included – such as The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – but I’d reread them in the last decade, so they didn’t meet the criteria. For a reason I now no longer recall, I also chose to ignore a few acknowledged sf classics on my book-shelves which did meet the criteria.
The books I picked were… Ringworld, Rendezvous With Rama, Star King, The Tar-Aiym Krang,The Stainless Steel Rat, Second Stage Lensman, Jack of Eagles, The Left Hand of Darkness, Lord Valentine’s Castle, Radix, To Your Scattered Bodies Go and Stranger in a Strange Land.
The 2009 reading challenge is now over, and… some I’m glad I reread, even though I didn’t think they were very good.
January – Ringworld, Larry Niven, was a dissatisfying read. It needed a meatier plot. There’s much to be said for the ringworld itself, of course, but the novel felt surprisingly thin when compared to my memory of it. See here.
February – Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C Clarke, on the contrary made a virtue of the thinness of its plot. It explained nothing. Some bits of it read somewhat dated now, and Clarke’s prose was rarely more than workmanlike, but… read as an historical document – as what sf was, not what it is or should be – this novel did not sort of remind me why I’d become a fan in the first place. See here.
March – Star King, Jack Vance, felt like a wasted opportunity more than anything else. It’s middling Vance, but it’s, well, it’s Vance. There’s not much point in reading it as Star King. I might as well have picked any Vance novel. See here.
April – The Tar-Aiym Krang, Alan Dean Foster, was just ordinary, and I wondered why I’d like it so much as a teenager. On reflection, it’s probably because so much sf of later years is like it. It has that sort of generic role-playing game space opera feel to it, and whatever was new in it has subsequently been buried beneath a mass of similar material. See here.
May – The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison, was a real surprise. It was rubbish. I hadn’t expected that at all. After finishing it, I purged my book-shelves of all my Stainless Steel Rat books. See here.
June – Second Stage Lensman, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, I expected to be rubbish. And so it was. There was a certain fascination in the universe of the book, but the cringe-inducing dialogue and offensive sexism made it hard to enjoy. It sort of defines “historical document” when it comes to sf. No one should ever read it without a a full appreciation of when it was written. See here.
July – Jack of Eagles, James Blish, was not as good as I’d remembered it, but neither was it embarrassingly bad. Blish was one of the better craftsmen working in sf during the 1950s and 1960s, and it shows in this. See here.
August – The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin, was another surprise. It was a great deal better than I’d remembered it. If this had been a competition, this book would have won by a considerable distance. See here.
September – Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg, was enjoyable, but more lightweight than I’d remembered. It was one of those novels where the setting had stayed with me, but the story had evaporated. I have to wonder if that’s how many classics of sf are chosen… See here.
October – Radix, AA Attanasio, was almost entirely how I’d remembered it. Interesting first half, wishy-washy New Age-y second half. On reflection, I should have chosen another book for this month. See here.
November – To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip José Farmer, was another one of those sf classics whose central premise I remembered well – i.e., all the people who had ever lived are reincarnated on the banks of a great river. The actual plot of the book I didn’t recall so well. And, it seemed, for good reason. I wasn’t convinced by it very much. See here.
December – Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A Heinlein, I knew was going to be problematical. As a teenager, I’d devoured many of Heinlein’s novel, but they’d never felt entirely… healthy to me. Perhaps that was the attraction. This sf classic was, I knew full well, going to be the most contentious read of the challenge. I was going to hate it, I just knew I was. Instead, I found myself initially enjoying it, but growing increasingly annoyed with it as the story progressed. It’s almost Rand lite, although nowhere near as risible as her books. Only thirteen year old boys could consider Stranger in a Strange Land a classic of the genre. See here.
So that’s it, the 2009 reading challenge, and the third one I’ve done since starting this blog. Like the others, it’s been of mixed success. Some of the books I’m glad I reread, others I wish I hadn’t bothered. Looking back over the twelve books, there are a few titles I’m sorry I didn’t choose instead of those I did pick – such as The Many-Coloured Land by Julian May, Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss, Neuromancer by William Gibson, or Gateway by Frederik Pohl… And I could no doubt find others. Perhaps they’re for another challenge in another year…
This year, I’ll be tackling fantasy series – see here – and I’m sort of looking forward to it, much as you look forward to a visit to the gym…