Which ones to buy

This blog is about books, without which my student overdraft would have been smaller. You might assume that I was staggering under the financial weight of buying all the key texts from the reading lists, but no: I was lucky enough to be attending a university with lots of well-stocked libraries. But there were many times when the overwhelming pressure of my social life got together with the nagging feeling that I ought to be writing an essay, and in an effort to escape from the pair of them I would walk for the ten minutes it took me to arrive at a large high street bookshop.

I know many people who say they never read any fiction while they were at university because all their reading time and energy went to their course books. Most of them I even believe. For me, this wasn’t an option. Abstaining from fiction for the duration of each term would have been like abstaining from food. I did without TV and barely noticed. Books were different.

There was, of course, the local public library. It wasn’t a bad library at all. But what I usually wanted was fantasy or science fiction, and every public library I have ever come across suffers from one major flaw in this area. The rule is: if it looks interesting, they will only ever have Volume Two. This happily saved me from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series (for Volume Two here read Volumes Four, Seven and Ninety-One) but also meant that if I was in the mood to immerse myself in a very different world for a while the bookshop usually won.

The book-buying habit persisted once I graduated, fuelled by the exciting arrival of a (small) monthly wage, but I began to realise I needed to develop some rules, in order to avoid frustration, a renewal of the overdraft, and being lumbered with numerous volumes of complete drivel. So, sixteen years after the start of my university and splurge-book-buying careers, here are those rules. I usually even stick to them.

1. Only buy paperback.

This helps the bank balance. I know hardback books can be a lot more visually satisfying, but there are a number of reasons other than the economic one for sticking to paperback. They’re a lot easier to read in the bath, for one thing, and less likely to give you postural problems if you’re lugging them around in your bag all day.

The only exception I’ve made in recent years to this rule is for Harry Potter, on the grounds that for the last few books of the series it would have been impossible to avoid hearing all the major plot spoilers while you were dutifully waiting for the paperback. I rather resent this.

Oh, and a message to those publishers who insist on bringing out the larger ‘trade paperbacks’ first: please don’t.

2. Wait till the author has finished the trilogy/duology/other -ology.

There are two reasons for this. The first is related to the title of this blog. I get through a lot of reading, so my memories of things I’ve read aren’t always very clear. This means that when I buy a new instalment of a story I feel I need to re-read all the previous instalments in order to do it justice. Applying this to a trilogy therefore means that if I buy each book as it’s published, when I get to the end I will have read the first volume three times, the second twice, and the third once. It gives me a strange, unbalanced view of the whole.

The second reason is that you don’t know how long the whole thing is going to take, or sometimes if it’s going to be finished at all. I’ve had frustrating experiences with Melanie Rawn’s Exiles series (tantalisingly left when for entirely understandable personal reasons the author had to take a break), and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (for some reason I thought the first three books (in four volumes) were all there were going to be). Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series took a long long time before it was all published (again understandably: there’s a lot of it). I’m just an impatient bugger and I hate being left in the middle of a good story.

I’ve just thought of a third reason, which is that waiting on tenterhooks for the conclusion of a gripping saga can tempt you to break Rule 1. This happened with Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series.

This only applies to anything with a continuous plot. A series of novels by the same author featuring the same characters (e.g. Terry Pratchett, Lindsey Davis) is fine: I just go ‘hooray’ when a new one appears. In paperback, that is.

3. Only favourite authors get bought new unseen.

This is the rule I break most often, sometimes because a book has rave reviews from an author I trust, sometimes just because I’m in the basement of Forbidden Planet and I get carried away, and occasionally because I’ve nothing to read on the train. But in an effort to stop spending money on things I didn’t like and won’t read again I’m trying to become a bit more canny.

If I get organised, I can use the library to sample things I think I may like. If you follow Rule 2 and wait till a trilogy is complete, then the chance that your local library will still be stocking Volume One is small, but you can at least get them to order it up for you. Charity shops are another source for me: I’ll test something out, and if I like it I’ll buy subsequent books new.

I’ve tried reading reviews online, with varying success. There’s a problem with new fantasy and science fiction, which is that amateur reviewers rarely seem to notice the quality of the writing, and professional mainstream reviewers only review a fraction of the genre literature published. The only solution seems to be to subscribe to a specialist site. I would love to be proved wrong about this.

(Disclaimer: No-one should pay any attention to any reviews they read on this website.)

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