Reading through an Author’s Canon



Do you set goals to read the complete oeuvre of an author? Do you get a little buzz inside your cheek when you read “she’s read all of [fill in author’s name]?

I do.

And I tell myself little fictions about what I’m going to do.

I’m thinking aloud, trying to articulate a reading plan for the year to come. The last plan I made, for 2010, was to read around the world. I read 18 of the 71 titles listed. And reviewing the list makes me want to renew that quest. But when I listed the books read in 2011, I was disappointed in the absence of authors dear to my heart. So, without a formal reading challenge I’m planning to be more intentional with my reading.

In my last post I asked why do you read?  Thank you for your answers, which evoked many happy sighs. Thank you!

My next question is how do you decide what to read next? In my case, it often depends on which bookshelf I browse. The entry-way shelf has an eclectic collection of books just received. Since they are new to me they are the equivalent of shiny objects. The hall shelf holds favorite authors, the Penguin collection, and books which look pretty on the shelf. The guest room shelf is an unorganized hodge-podge of books that no longer fit on the entry-way shelf. The living room bookshelf has the heavy hitters: history, biography, poetry.

I love all the reading challenges that blow by me this time of the year: Ireland, L.M. Montgomery, WWI, North Africa. Part of me wants to join a half a dozen. But I hold back.

I’d love to hear how you decide which book you’ll pick up to read.

And one more question: who are the authors whose entire works you would like to read?

Key phrase: would like to. If you had time to read, if you had access to every book, if, if, if…who would it be?

I made the Wordle above just playing with this idea. I look at it five minutes later and realize that the one author I’ve been thinking about the most in this context—David McCullough—is absent. There is a category of authors—Mark Helprin comes to mind—that I’m not convinced that I will want to read everything. And the thought of actually reading through and finishing Tolkien’s Silmarillion makes me want to shout “I take it back!”

I’ve been reading Barbara Tuchman’s book of essays, Practicing History; she also needs to be added to the list. Reading her is the equivalent of holding Coldstone ice cream on your tongue until it melts. Or perhaps a better analogy would be homemade bread hot from the oven: there is some effort involved, but the end result is nourishing. A sample quote:

When it comes to language, nothing is more satisfying than to write a good sentence. It is no fun to write lumpishly, dully, in prose the reader must plod through like wet sand. But it is a pleasure to achieve, if one can, a clear running prose that is simple yet full of surprises.

My simple plan is this: Read one book from my list of high priority authors a month, before other reading. Then fill in with other books. Though I don’t write much about Bible reading, that tops my list. I’ve bounced between fast and slow Bible reading. I consider reading through the Bible in a year fast reading. But sometimes I catch myself zipping through just to put a checkmark in that box. Then I slow down.

So if on December 31, 2012, when I review my reading, I hope I will see a Chesterton, a Spurgeon, a L.M. Montgomery, a Tuchman, a McCullough, a Dickens and a Trollope on the list.  Yes, that would be lovely.

Who is on your list: Jan Karon? P.D. James? Amy Carmichael? John Milton? J.K. Rowling? N.D. Wilson? Elisabeth Elliot? Agatha Christie? Anna Quindlen? Sigrid Undset?



16 thoughts on “Reading through an Author’s Canon

  1. This is an interesting question.  Two authors leap to mind–authors whose works I *have read* in entirety.  I’ve read all of Jane Austen.  More than twice.  And I’ve just blogged about another author whose work I’ve read in entirety (everything that’s been translated, that is): Jostein Gaarder.  In some ways it’s a little easier with the modern authors I’ve read as we went along, each new book as it was published.  When I think about that, I think I have read all of Lilian Braun (The Cat Who…but not the newer ones by a ghost writer), John Grisham (except the latest title or two–I’m behind, and I don’t really care), and Elizabeth George (her newest is already pre-ordered and will arrive on my Kindle next week).  So, as you see, I may or may not keep up with them to the end.  And most of these do not qualify as “great literature.”With older authors who were excessively prolific (I’m talking about you, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and William Thackeray), I don’t honestly feel compelled to read them all. Not all of their books were “great,” either.  I can read the ones that have truly stood the test of time and be satisfied.  I don’t like all of L.M. Montgomery’s or Louisa Alcott’s books equally.  I can’t read the Silmarillion, either.  If you want to read ALL of anyone’s oeuvre, I suggest picking someone who didn’t write so much it doesn’t leave time for anyone else–the Brontes, for example.  Maybe George Eliot?  Marilynne Robinson?Hmmmm…I’ve read all of the Mitford series, but not Jan Karon’s newest book.  I may have read all of Agatha Christie over the years, but I’m not certain.  I’ve read all Mary Lawson’s books (two), and fervently wish she would write more.  I would like to read everything Eva Hoffman wrote.This is an interesting concept, but ultimately, I don’t feel compelled to read everything by by-gone authors.  I feel I’m more likely to read “everything” by the newer authors I keep up with, because of the timely nature of literature, while confining my reading of older authors to the “classic” titles that have stood the test of time.  Although I’ve read  more than one title by authors such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins, and will happily read more, I don’t care if I never get to them all.  I’d rather catch up with Wendell Berry.

  2. I’m returning to a favorite author this year, Elizabeth Goudge (even though I don’t love all of her books).  I also want to revisit Austen.  Even though she’s written only half a dozen books I may never be able to read them all because I can’t seem to get through Emma.  Like you, I like to follow my whims in reading and usually when I finish a book I get up and immediately browse through one of my bookshelves to see what’s next.  I also look through my Amazon wish list, which is really a “books to check out from the library” list.Reading is such a lovely adventure!

  3. I love your posts these past couple days, Carol! I used to want to read everything Wendell Berry wrote, but have discovered that some of essays are simply too much for me. 🙂 I will probably give all his in print collections a try at some point, but not feel bad if I can’t get through them. I definitely plan to read all of the Port William fiction, though.There are other authors whose work I would someday like to get through, but like you, I have recognized that this will probably never happen. I do want to read more Dickens, Tolstoy, Trollope, Gaskell… I’ve never read any Montgomery, except the Anne-with-an-e series several times, of course.With modern authors, I have one more Frank Delaney in print (Shannon, which is my maiden name) left to go – but I think he has a new one out this year, too. I would love to read all of Maeve Binchy, Anne Tyler, PD James, Anne Perry…..There are so many!

  4. Well, my friend, I’ve read all of Wendell Berry’s works (including poem collections) simply because of your posts :). A few of my other “must-read-all-they-wrote” authors are Ernest Hemingway (love his letters, essays more than his fiction), Jane Austen, the Brontes, Zora Neale Hurston, Thomas Hardy, C. S. Lewis, and some contemporary authors, Luci Shaw (both prose and poetry), Matthew Pearl, Sandra Cisneros, Isabelle Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, Dallas Willard, Elisabeth Elliot — those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head at the moment. I’m sure as soon as I click “submit” I’ll think of five more whom I enjoy even more than some of those I’ve listed. After reading your post today, I bought Tuchman’s Guns of August and Practicing History for my Kindle for PC (which, by the way, is a free version of Kindle that can be downloaded onto any computer and synced so that books bought can be read on any computer — love it since I don’t have a “real” Kindle). Great series of posts this week 🙂

  5. @Krakovianka and @hopeinbrazil – You both have added many books to my list. Thank you!I vacillate between two views: thinking that wanting to read all of Trollope, for instance, is just an affectation. So I can say: I’ve read all of Trollope. But opposing that “affectation” view is the idea of going on a treasure hunt. Looking for the nuggets (don’t you think Trollope would have a nugget in every book?), analyzing why this title doesn’t work like the other one does. And perhaps, for an author like Shakespeare, the sheer discipline of it all. Recently we were cleaning shelves and my husband lifted Matthew Henry’s heavy commentary. “I’ve always wanted to read through it from start to end,” I remarked. He thought I was crazy. “Don’t do that. There are better ways to spend your time,” was his reply. Not that he doesn’t appreciate Matthew Henry, but he thinks I wouldn’t retain much from such a huge intake.  With Jane Austen it was so natural. Pure desire. Give me more. I never once thought of the “status” of having read all of Jane. It was sad to come to the end of her. But that propelled me to Trollope.Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  6. @nnjmom –  I prefer Wendell Berry in this order: fiction, poetry, essay. Dickens, Tolstoy, Trollope, Gaskell >> there’s a line up that could keep me in books until I die! You’ve gotten me reading Frank Delaney. I picked up Ireland and didn’t get very far. When that happens I usually suspect that I was unsettled, instead of the book. Thanks for your kind words!

  7. @LaurieLH – Wow, Laurie, you’ve done it! (Hit the Wendell Berry bingo!) I understand the “I’ll think of five more after I his Submit”.  You reminded me that I’ve worked through several Brontes, Zora Neale Hurston, and probably half of Hardy. I’m delighted you bought you some Tuchman! I suspect we are not aligned politically, that when I read her more modern stuff I’ll find more I disagree with. That being said, I love her writing. I love what I’ve read so far. Fortunately, she took a long time to write each book, so reading her canon is an achievable goal.

  8. I thought of a few more!  I’ve read all of Betty Smith (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, etc…) and Gene Stratton-Porter.  I’ve probably read half of Chaim Potok and will happily read the rest. 

  9. @kristenmstewart@twitter – Kristen, I just like you. You make me want to fly out to Memphis for a weekend. Graham Greene is one of my authors waiting in the wings. Where would you recommend I start? I might be one shy of Willa Cather, about 3/4 through ML’E, and a long way to go with Walker Percy.

  10. @Krakovianka – Karen, I never thought of reading more Betty Smith. I’ve read A Tree. I’ll have to look into that. And I believe I’ve read all of GS-P. I found some of her titles pretty jingoistic. But fun to read if you can ignore that. BTW, I was born in Sturgis, MI, which I believe was where she resided. I think I’m about half of Chaim Potok. I need to start over, since I read him in my twenties. I used to do this so naturally back then. There was the summer of James Mitchner, the summer of Leon Uris, the summer of the Thoenes.

  11. Carol, for the best Betty Smith (apart from Tree), look up Joy (Comes) in the Morning. That’s my other favorite–truly wonderful.  Maggie-Now is good, but Tomorrow Will Be Better is too dark and sad for me.  And that’s it–just four!  I agree with you about some of Gene Stratton-Porter’s books, but she is *such* a good writer and her characters are so real…(usually…okay, I kind of hate At the Foot of the Rainbow and Under the White Flag….).

  12. So many authors for whom I would like to read everything they wrote: Madeleine L’Engle, Wendell Berry, Dickens, P.D. James, Lewis, Dorothy Sayers . . . I could go on. So many books, not enough time. I think your plan is a good one. I just read whatever catches my eye next. I always have lots of books lying around, in my library basket, on my Kindle, and then I read one. I do think that when you’re in a “slow reading” mood, you would enjoy The Silmarillion. I think I”ve read most of it a couple of times through, and I find the stories beautiful and sort of melancholic.

  13. Carol- these are fun/great questions.  Too many books for the years of my life…..The reality of my life right now is that reading time is fairly limited.  Most of the books I have read over the past 3-4 years have been choices I moderate for our book group or books related to music/worship.  Our book group list is diverse enough to be interesting and high in quality.  The second question:  I have read several Graham Greene novels and I want to read the rest of them as well as his short stories and the 3 vol biography by Norman Sherry at some point.  I finished Flannery O’Connor last year, but could reread them all again with very little encouragement.I want to read more Chesterton and Dickens.  I have read all but a couple of Dostoevsky works & want to polish those off as well.  More Tolkien is always welcome as well.

  14. Interesting post. I’m not sure there are any authors that I feel compelled to read all their works in a systematic way, although there are authors that I love and would like to read more of and those that I’d be likely to read anything new that they write. As to what to read next…it varies. Sometimes it’s which book pops on the library hold list next (and will have to be returned in 3 weeks). Sometimes it’s that I read one book and then an interest in a particular topic is ignited. Sometimes it’s someone else’s blog post. 🙂 

  15. Glad to know so many other readers do this too! I call this practice “deep reading.” My current list of authors is Shirley Hazzard (have about 2 titles left to finish her canon), Kazuo Ishiguro (1 title left), Iris Murdoch (lots to go!) and AS Byatt (more recently started). I keep lists of their titles and watch for them at used book stores, etc. I also read interviews, biographies or other background materials. I love the feeling of piecing together all these bits to get a clearer picture of the author’s themes, perspectives, etc. 

  16. Carol,I chose books by personal recommendation.  I’ll only read a book that someone I know gave a five star mark to. (Well, actually, I’ll read almost anything, but that is the intent.)  I like to see if  people’s taste surprise me. What do people I admire or respect read?   You said your book of 2011 was Unbroken so mom, thinking it was part of the Mitford series wanted to read it.  Hah! Was she in for a surprise!  She enjoyed it so much and then passed it on to my dad, who passed it on to me.  As I read it each night I’d tell my husband, “I’m just going to read until I get him out of the POW camp.”  As it went on & on, “What year did the war end??!” “What month did we drop the bomb?”  “I gotta get him OUT!”  Then after finishing I thought about my mom reading it- she doesn’t read suspense, drama, or unpleasantness in any way…”So mom, how did you read Unbroken?”  “Oh, I skipped the part when he was in the POW camp.”  Ahhh.  And now my husband is reading it and I breathed a sigh of relief last night when he “got Louie out.” Looking forward to your lists and recommendations for 2012!

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