On Reading An Author’s Work In (and Out) of Order

This is a guest post from Heather Seggel. Heather is a former bookseller and library technician who currently reviews books. She’s beginning to wonder if there’s not some sort of book equivalent to methadone. Is that what Netflix is for? Currently couch-surfing, she really really wants to find her forever home. Follow her on Twitter @HeatherSeggel.

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It’s different when it happens with a band. You hear a song on the radio, fall instantly, madly in love and rush out in hot pursuit, only to learn that this new thing in your life comes bearing baggage: previous albums, a list of drummers let go due to irreconcilable differences, possibly even some embarrassing and surreal live footage you can dredge up on YouTube. You’re still in love, but it’s already a little diluted and confused. Would it be better to begin this relationship in the back catalog, where the right deep cut can make up for a multitude of lesser tracks, or do you opt to start where you are and grow together while also looking back? Which makes for a more lasting bond?

When it comes to books, each path has its merits.

I was a bookseller when Eat, Pray, Love happened—it wasn’t so much published as detonated—and was happy enough to point it out and ring it up, but felt no compulsion to read it. Oprah Winfrey had vouched for the book before our copies were in stock, and we were stampeded by women who did not require my thumbs-up to justify the purchase. It was a few years later when I decided to check it out, and even then the library waiting list stretched beyond one hundred. To pass the time, I pulled Elizabeth Gilbert’s earlier fiction collection, Pilgrims, off the shelf, surprised to learn that she also trafficked in short stories.

Pilgrims is a slender volume, and in retrospect there’s little I can tell you about the characters or the plot of most of its stories, but the settings moved right into my solar plexus and established a base camp that remains to this day. The endless sky butting up against the beery intimacy of a roadhouse, details that could be sung direct from the page by Lucinda Williams and sound perfectly at home, and the sadness of deep longing in a place that can never fulfill it, and from which you may not escape, all absolutely hammered me. I may not have been a citizen of the actual landscape described, but I’ve done hard time in its emotional equivalent.

Suffice it to say I enjoyed myself while reading. By the time Eat came in for me I no longer thought of it as the Oprah book by that Coyote Ugly lady who looks like a Botticelli painting. I was a fan, and able to surf the tsunami of hyperbole that no book should have to live up to far more effectively. In this case, the back catalog held the key.

Then there was this book called Wild; maybe you’ve heard about it, I think it’s been made into a movie or something. Another book I resisted in part because the noise around its release was so tremendous, but also because, like its author, I lost my mother in my twenties and wasn’t eager to relive the experience vicariously. (And on a shamefully petty level, I requested a copy through one of my reviewing outlets and was beaten to the punch. Sour grapes: a real thing after all!)

My mind was changed by a former colleague from that bookstore gig, who recommended it to me without knowing about my mom, though she did know I was in a rather stuck place in my life. If you had said “Dear Sugar”to me at that time, I would have corrected you, because you’re actually supposed to leave salt out for deer. So I did a clumsy backstroke through Cheryl Strayed’s work, beginning with Wild, then devouring her advice columns like a starving hiker on a Clif bar. There were also several breaks for some of the ugliest ugly crying you’ve ever seen, after which I brought things home by ending at the beginning, with her debut novel, Torch.

It’s hard to explain why reading Torch after Strayed’s nonfiction was so potent for me, but it may come down to a question of voice. The writing in both Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things consistently rises to the level of art in part because it’s so deceptively conversational. I’ve only heard Strayed speak once, in a radio rebroadcast of some Arts and Lectures interview, and she writes like she talks, in an accessible, funny, profane, wise voice. The conversation was so delightful I failed to notice that my office and kitchen were flooding (literally, water pouring in through the ceiling and overflowing the windowpanes, forming twin lagoons)  while I sat there, and that was without yet realizing she was the interview subject. She’s compelling, but her stories would be even without the artful telling.

Many of the details that comprise Torch are unambiguously drawn from Strayed’s own life, but it’s a work of fiction; the story is enhanced and shaded, and invites the reader into places reality can’t allow us. I felt empathy for the young woman who lost her mother in Wild; her pain was my own, though her loss and reaction to it were not. Reading Torch, I loved the mother and mourned her passing in real time, with a bodily ache. The surviving family and their fragmentation and collapse were sad, but part of me was in the scrum with them, wondering when someone was going to step up and notice that I still needed parenting. The tears this time were for my own loss; after thinking it was a done deal, I found layers of grief and joy tamped down so hard there were fossils embedded there.

Without knowing the story before I approached it, there’s no doubt that Torch would have affected me; it’s beautiful and great-hearted and gritty and true, and the rural Minnesota it describes is a place of glistening danger. But coming to it with the adjustments for context Strayed’s early work created made it less a reading experience and more of a healing crisis for me. So there’s something to be said for saving the last for best.

This doesn’t solely apply to honey-haired friends of Oprah, either. Despite being an English major in school, I blithely hopscotch through the classics, then am astonished to see the building blocks of talent as they’re erected…or follow the tree back to the awesome seed that launched it into being. There’s something inspiring about either vantage point for a writer to take in: The instructive value in seeing a voice develop is priceless, but being dazzled by where it ends up is a great spur to creativity. Series fiction often points you where you need to go with a handy number on the spine, but next time you’re reading off the beaten path survey your position within the body of work. Knowing where you are can lead you to unexpected places.

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