On the Longevity of Books

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I got a request the other day for an interview from a newspaper in Montenegro, a country which—I’m ashamed to say–I would struggle to find on a map. More surprising still than their location was that they wanted to talk to me about The Mask of Atreus, a novel which came out over 6 years ago in the states, and is now pretty hard to find except on e-readers.

The interview got me thinking about the curious persistence of published books, the way they hang around long after things seem to have moved on. They pop up in new countries and new markets, fresh and exciting, oblivious to the fact that their moment in the lime light is supposed to be over. They crop up in second hand book stores, and beach front exchanges, dog-eared and battered, but still legible, still able to do whatever it was they did first for all their wear and tear.

No, this won’t be a hymn to paper, or a Cassandra wail about e-books and the State of the Industry. It’s just a reminder of one of the things that makes books (in whatever form) worth producing.

As a writer I’m acutely aware of my publishing history, how well books have sold, and what I’m trying to steer into the spotlight. But I know as a reader that what authors are currently doing (like what music a band is now producing) isn’t necessarily uppermost in the minds of those who have read and enjoyed my stuff in the past. From time to time I get e-mail from readers about books published years ago, and I sometimes have to fight the slight disappointment that they aren’t writing to enthuse about what I’ve just released. This is, I think, a perfectly normal response on my part: it’s natural that I’m most enthusiastic about the book I just wrote because that’s the one I just poured my self into. But as a reader I know that I don’t always read an author in any coherent order, though I will often start in their back list (if only because those books—if still available—are usually cheaper than the brand honking new hard cover).

It’s all very Shakespearean, this fascination with the timelessness of print, and a I don’t want to oversell it, particularly for a writer like me who isn’t really in the business of peddling eternal verities to be inscribed on the chapel wall. My books are products, and as such they are subject to the whims and trends of the market. For a moment they seem to glitter, but then the light shifts, and readers move on. That’s the nature of the beast, and most of us just hope to get enough time in the light to connect with an audience and maybe make a little money in the process. But there is something remarkable about the way our published work lingers, and that however much it might date, however harder it might be to find, it still has the power to touch, to stimulate, to move when the right person stumbles upon it.

And that’s only part of it. There are books I read years ago, decades even, which are still a part of me in ways their authors cannot possibly know. That I read their work as an undergraduate, say, does not show up in their Book Scan numbers for this week, or in any other record of what is currently happening with their work. Those books, they might think, according to the standards of the industry, are dead. But I—the reader who loved them–live on, and I carry with me their thoughts, their characters, or maybe just a snippet of a phrase; however fragmentary these things I have gleaned from my reading–however long ago it was–have become bound up with who I am and who I will be.

So little truly lasts.

It’s nice that the words we put down with such care might yet outlive us at least in the minds of others. This is a good thing to remember. Lately a friend referred to an episode in one of my books, not an especially significant episode, but one which amused him, one from which he could even quote a few phrases. The fact that he recalled it at all, that it had stayed with him, filled me with a rush of confused and grateful joy. This sense of connection, of giving readers something which stays with them is, after all, why writers write.

Last quarter, I made about a hundred bucks in royalties from the US edition of The Mask of Atreus, and the though the book has been very profitable for me, I discarded the statement with a defeated remark about how that novel was now as ancient as the history which roots its plot. But somewhere in a little central European country, a national newspaper is running a feature on that book as if it’s new, as if it still has things to say, and readers to excite.

You have to admit, that’s pretty cool.

So which books from your past still live with you, and which would you like to see stick around long enough to find a wider readership? Maybe we can promote a little longevity for those stories we think deserve it.

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33 comments to On the Longevity of Books

  • Edgar Rice Burroughs and J.R.R. Tolkien, of course. Clifford Simak. Frank Herbert, Stephen R. Donaldson. Guy Kay, Marion Zimmer Bradley. All of those were devoured more than 20 years ago and are instrumental in defining what I like about fantasy and science fiction.

    More recent authors – say in the 10-15 years ago range – are Mike Resnick, Jennifer Roberson, Melanie Rawn, Misty Lackey, Glen Cook, Isaac Asimov, Michael Kube McDowell.

    There are more. So many more. Frank L. Baum’s Oz series, the Red and Black Stallion books, books I read as a kid and passed onto my own children and grandchildren. And I haven’t even touched the classics which I avoided when assigned and devoured once they were no longer “required reading.”

    I’d better stop now as titles and authors are clamoring to be added.
    I suddenly have this incredible urge to re-read A Clockwork Orange.

  • JJerome

    AJ – your post struck me in a conflicting doozy. I’m not prone to nihilsm, but so many good books seem to pile up in dusty heaps. The latest book to add the the pile is mine, and I’m not even sure it’s good. Way too early to tell. Your perspective is a much needed potion.

    Most of the books that still live with me are books I read in adulthood, although I have been thinking lately about Watership Down, which I read in high school. Would that book even be published today? Is it even timeless?

  • Lyn,
    great selection. Of course, lots of those are quite widely known and so have left clear footprints in the genre, but it’s good to be made more deliberately conscious of them, thanks.

    JJ,
    interesting. I appreciate your conflicted position, though I guess part of what I’m saying is that some books that seem to have fallen into that dusty historical heap do continue to resonate for some people in ways that go largely unnoticed by the culture (or industry) at large. That, at least, is my hope. Your question about Watership Down is interesting. I honestly don’t know if it would be published now, but since I only read it once as a teenager when it was a phenomenon, I also don’t know what I’d think of it now if it were. I don’t really think anything is truly timeless, if by that we mean somehow transcending the cultural moment, and I’m curious to go back to books like WD to see how well they have weathered the intervening years. Oh for more reading time…

  • Julia

    AJ, thanks for this post. I find it very comforting, how the experience of reading can integrate itself into the life of the reader. This is, perhaps, the best kind of haunting: the way a character, a scene, a phrase, even a memory of reading lives on in a life — in a way that the author will never know.

    I suspect this resonates with me particularly because I’m a professor — because I hope that some moments in the classroom might have the same kind of staying power, and because I suspect that what lingers most are small things, moments I may not even remember myself.

  • adamgaylord

    “Every word written is a victory against death.”

    -Michel Butor

  • Megan B.

    Some books that have stayed with me, in whole or in part: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the whole series) by Douglas Adams, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Alice in Wonderland, The Most Dangerous Game (I forget the author’s name), A Wrinkle in Time, Lord of the Flies. I could go on, but I won’t. These are all books that have left me with little snippets I still think about from time to time. Some are very well known books, others less so. But something in them stayed in my mind.

    I love the idea that anything I write might stay with someone, even if they forget my name or the title of the story.

  • “Cassandra wail about e-books and the State of the Industry” <–Phrases like this remind me of why I love reading your blogs. Perfect.

    I love the idea of walking into a shop, finding a book that is old and battered, and letting it transport me to a new place long after it's buzz, pomp, and circumstance is over. It feels not only like a secret I've just been told, but a journey that happened by chance. It's wonderful/

    My book list?
    The Ruins of Ambrai, by Melanie Rawn
    The Deed of Paksennarion, by Elizabeth Moon
    The Lioness Quartet, by Tamora Pierce
    The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
    The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I have a book of short stories that I have cherished for ages. The book, for me, represents the perfect kind of whimsey and magic. However, said book is currently *somewhere* in a moving box (this unknown state actually sort of frightens me), I can’t quite remember the title (perhaps ‘The Magician’s Tower and Other Stories) or the name of the author, and every time I’ve searched in the past I’ve managed to find no other work by this author. But that book is precious to me.

    Other books of power: ‘The Little Prince’, ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’, ‘The Jaguar Princess’, ‘Winter Rose’, ‘Deerskin’, ‘Red Moon, Black Mountain’ – the list goes on, though it also always seems shorter than I think it ought to be, but there are books that hold a chord in my heart.

    Thank you for reminding me of them.

  • I, for one, still hold out hope for a Live Action movie adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain”. Disney’s adaptation, “The Black Cauldron” was a good movie, don’t get me wrong, but I have this dream of a Peter Jacksonesque version.

    Needless to say, Alexander’s Prydain books definitely live with me still. It’s been probably more than a decade since I last reread them, but they are a part of me.

    I was amused, somewhat, by Lyn Nichols above, who put Isaac Asimov in with the group of “more recent authors” from the past 10-15 years. Asimov died 20 years ago, this month. He’s definitely one of the classics, now.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Also, to JJerome: some of my most beloved books are out of print. I agree with AJ, commercial success says nothing about the continued personal value of a given work.

  • Many of the books that still live with me are classics that are in no danger of being forgotten–To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Fahrenheit 451, The Once and Future King, Song of Solomon, and many others.

    Some of the books I cherish that are either out of print or less well-known:

    The Forgotten Door–Alexander Key
    Trixie Belden mystery series
    The Speed of Dark–Elizabeth Moon
    All the Way Home–Ellen Cooney
    Hearts–Hilma Wolitzer
    The Book Thief–Markus Zusak
    Peter Bartholomew mystery series–Sally Gunning

  • Julia,
    yes, there are definite parallels with life in the classroom. It’s great to hear from a former student that something you said stayed with them and somehow made a difference for good. It’s easy to forget this.

    Adam, nice :) A sentiment that could come from Shakespeare’s sonnets.

    Megan,
    another nice selection, and I agree that remembering the author is in some ways less important than the sense of remembering what the bok did for you.

    Scribe,
    aren’t you sweet? :) Thanks. I confess, apart from the Walker, I don’t know your list. Time for me to get reading…

    Hep,
    I LOVE the Little Prince. Beautiful book. Thanks for reminding me!

    Stephen,
    it’s amazing how long a good book stays with you, isn’t it? It’s almost like a physical presence.

    Sisi,
    more books I don’t know! Thanks for the list.

  • I read a book in high school — GOOD TIMES, BAD TIMES by James Kirkwood — that remains one of the most memorable reading experiences of my life. It was kind of an updated (for the 1980s) version of A SEPARATE PEACE (which I also loved), and it spoke to me about friendship, about teen-angst, in ways no other book ever had. SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS still haunts me, though it’s been years since I read it. Of my own work, I would love to see the Forelands books gain more readership. I feel that the stuff I’m writing now is the best work I’ve done, but looking back I would say that the Forelands series was my opus: the most significant work of my career in terms of time commitment and emotional investment.

  • Gypsyharper

    Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders series. Those books got me through junior high and high school. Every time a new one came out, I’d read the entire series again from the beginning. I think hers is the only celebrity death I’ve actually cried over.

    Also:
    Lord of the Rings; the Hobbit
    Bridge to Terabithia
    Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series
    Alas Babylon
    Exodus & Trinity (both by Leon Uris)
    The Velveteen Rabbit
    Watership Down
    Chronicles of Narnia
    Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart – the whole series, but especially the first one.

    If only the number of times I’ve reread books that I love showed up in an author’s stats!

  • David,
    I know SNOW FALLING but not the others. Those teen years are huge for books we just bond with though, aren’t they? It’s like the moment you discover that a book is somehow YOURS in ways you hadn’t thought possible, that it speaks to you privately, personally. Great things to hold on to.

    Gypsy,
    I’d love the idea that authors could find out when someone rereads their books, or when they pass them on to other people. There’s no way to track this stuff, but that doesn’t make it any less potent a testimony to the quality of the work.

  • Megan B.

    SiSi, I LOVE The Book Thief. It made me absolutely sob. The only reason I didn’t list it was because I read it last year, so it’s too soon to say it’s stuck with me.

  • @AJ: You MUST read Scott Lynch’s “The Lies of Locke Lamora”. It’s one of my favorites.

    @Gypsy: I loved Bridge to Terabithia, and Tuck Everlasting. Also, YES. Kushiel’s Dart is basically perfection.

  • Ken

    “Old Bookstore” is my second favorite smell ever. I love walking into those shops to look around. I try not to have any particular book in mind when I go in and just let myself get drawn somewhere.

    My booklist:
    “Sir MacHinery” by Tom McGowan is the first fantasy book that really stuck with me. I’ve still got a copy on my shelves.
    “The Lord of the Rings”
    “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch…that makes two votes for Locke, AJ. If it’s not up in “The TO-READ” list soon, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
    “The Name of the Wind” and “A Wise Man’s Fear” by Patrick Rothfuss
    “The Dragonlance Chronicles” by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman
    “The Dresden Files” by Jim Butcher

  • Scribe and Ken,
    Ok, I’m sold. Just downloaded LIES to my Kindle :)

  • Steven – the chronology was when ~I~ read them. Not when they wrote. I was late to find Asimov, and actually have to blame Bill Wu (who wrote one of the I, Robot books) for introducing me to Isaac’s worlds.

  • A.J., put me down for another vote for Lies of Locke Lamora. It’s not just a marvelous story – Lynch managed to build tension so well that I can still remember the line that revealed Locke’s plan for getting out of a bad situation with his skin still attached. I don’t usually remember specific lines, so when one stays in my head this many years later, it’s usually because the author did something right.

    For me, the books that will live forever are Tim Powers’ Last Call, On Stranger Tides and The Anubis Gates, Louise Cooper’s Time Master trilogy, Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories and Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series. Shucks, I can almost recite The Dark Is Rising from memory!

  • Wow, Misty, that’s quite an endorsement. Now I’m looking forward to it! The others too: all slide onto my mental TBR pile. Thanks!

  • ajp88

    I definitely agree with The Most Dangerous Game. That one will always stick with me. Same with Black Boy and Fahrenheit 451.

    A series that isn’t all that old, maybe 6 years [actually 9!], but certainly deserves a larger readership would have to be The Kingdoms of Thorn & Bone series by Greg Keyes. I love those books and the world he created, not to mention the premise (those colonists that disappeared from…was it Roanoke Colony (?) were transported to a fantasy world where they were promptly enslaved by a race of superior magic wielding beings; one, Virgenya Dare [Virginia Dare, the first colonists’ child born in America] led an uprising and they eventually thwarted their captors and now the the fantasy world is led and populated by men who have forgotten/neglected the magical threat that once enslaved them). I loved the worldbuilding and characters and many, many lines and scenes regularly replay in my mind.

  • ajp
    I’m not familiar with the Kingdom of Thorns and Bones, but it sounds fascinating. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • ajp88

    I hope you enjoy them! They really are some of my absolute favorite epic fantasy. On the spotlight shelf of my bookcase beside A Song of Ice & Fire and Winds of the Forelands.

  • Megan B, The Book Thief made me sob, too, and I don’t cry over books very often. I still remember sitting in bed reading late one night, crying away. It was so sad and so beautiful I couldn’t put it down, so I just grabbed a box of tissue and kept going.

    A Whole Bunch of People–thanks for reminding me of The Lies of Locke Lamora. A friend recommended that book to me a while back and I’d kind of forgotten about it. Now it’s moved up to the top of the TBR list, a list which is much longer after today’s post and comments!

  • Razziecat

    For me, “Lord of the Rings” is not only a classic, it’s like subliminal music…always there, just under the edge of hearing. Anne McCaffrey’s dragon series, Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster trilogy, much of Tanith Lee’s work (“The Birthgrave” comes to mind), Andre Norton’s Witch World books. Ann Maxwell wrote some interesting space opera/fantasy-type novels, and they stuck with me. I think they’re mostly out of print now. Diane Duane’s “The Door into Fire”, “The Door into Shadow” and “The Door into Starlight.”

    There were a few short stories that stayed with me, too, most notably one about a teenage boy in modern times (the 70’s, I think) who connects telepathically with a girl back in the 1600’s. The name & author escape me at the moment, but someone else may recall them. I loved the story.

  • Razzie,
    live the idea of familiar books as subliminal music. I know exactly what you mean. I especially like the way you can be doing some thing (or reading something else) and something just chimes in your head and suddenly you’re back there in a story you read decades ago. It’s not just about connection between author and reader, it’s connections between every story you’ve ever read and your own life. Ain’t reading grand?

  • sagablessed

    Hmm, timeless? Witchworld series by Andre Norton. The EarthSea trilogy by Ursala K. LeGuin, and Left hand of Darkness by the same. Darkover novels by MZB. I forgot about Alexander Key, so thank you for reminding me of those books. And Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. The Hawk of May series, and Riddlemaster of Hed series. The Shininh and Dune, of course. And The Pushcart Wars -I do not remember who wrote it. As a 4 yearold I loved that book. I am just starting the Jane Yellowrock series, and am waiting for Thieftaker to come out, as well as Lucienne’s new adult book.
    To be honest, there are so many…..how does one choose?
    And how does one find time to read more when writing, working, and taking care of a puppy? LOL!! XD

  • Vyton

    Like Razzie said, Tolkien is always there.

    Also Asimov and Clarke
    Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (The Mote in God’s Eye)
    Heinlein
    Doug Adams
    Dan Simmons (the Hyperion and Endymion books)
    and more recently Jasper Fforde

    Great post, AJ. Thanks.

  • SiSi and Sagablessed, Alexander Key was the first author to whom I ever wrote a letter. I had just finished Flight to the Lonesome Place and I had questions. He wrote me a lovely, gracious letter in return, and all these years I’ve wished I could meet him. The worst part? I found out not long ago that until he died in ’79, he lived within a few miles of my uncle and aunt in NC. I used to visit them in the summers, and it makes me crazy that I might have walked past the man in a grocery store and never even known!

  • It’s so nice to see so many endorsements for J.R.R.Tolkien.

    I first read The Lord of The Rings in the 70s. It could be said that a person who never existed has been my inspiration, but the writer behind that character is the source. Tolkien’s lyrical yet strong use of language continues to amaze and humble me. To this day, I catch myself thinking “If Frodo could manage to fight through all those difficulties, battered and mostly alone, I must be able to manage.”