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An Analysis of Book Rules: Can We Read Books out of Order?

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Sharanya Sharma

Staff Writer

Growing up, Sharanya Sharma was frequently caught leaving home and tumbling into places like Hogwarts, Prydain, and Frell. These days, she spends most of her time running around after (adorable) children in Washington, DC, trying to teach them things like math and social studies and reading. Especially reading. All of her spare time (and change) is spent in bookstores, inhaling books and coffee. She's had a life-long love affair with middle-grade and YA lit, and hopes to write her own novel(s) in those genres some day. Blog: Inkstinedreads Twitter: @srsharms

You all know I can be a bit prickly when it comes to rules that apply to a Proper Reading Experience. I first became aware of this when a good friend of mine told me, several times, that she actually read the second Harry Potter book before the first one.harry-potter

Despite this shockingly irreverent revelation, this person and I have managed to maintain our friendship throughout the years. But I sometimes wonder…how different was her Harry Potter experience to mine? Did it matter that she discovered the existence of Tom Riddle as Voldemort before she even met Voldemort? Did her perception of Ginny differ? Does it matter that she read these books out of order?
This question came back to me recently, when another friend asked me which I’d prefer for a Christmas present: the first three books in Julie Ann Long’s Pennyroyal Green series, or her the ones that have her TOP swoon-worthy heroes in them. My almost instantaneous reply was: “The first three, please!”

Secrets of a Summer NightI’m afraid this might be one rule I can’t see myself budging on. If there is even the slightest hint of a book belonging to a series, then there is absolutely no reasonable course of action other than to find the first and work my way through. This is true whether it is a fantasy series that builds on itself, like Harry Potter, or a romance series where each book could live entirely on its own, like Lisa Kleypas’s Wallflower series.

Even when I’ve tried, there’s always been this niggling voice in the back of my brain that is unequivocally certain that we are missing something CRUCIAL in the previous book(s) and that I’ll never know what it is because I am breaking the rules. And if I get lost and confused while I’m reading, then it would be my own fault, wouldn’t it? And at least in my reading life so far (which consists largely of Young Adult & Fantasy), this has more often than not proven true. Sure, with books in these genres, you could go back to previous books once you’ve read the ones in the middle…but, really. Doesn’t that feel like putting the syrup on the plate before you cook the waffles? How can you see what the character’s arc was like? How can the plotline make any sense? How can your waffles give you that delicious, gooey, soft & sweet feeling of satisfaction with each bite?

However, in certain series (mysteries, thrillers, romances), each book could act as its own story. Certainly, there might be allusions here and there to previous characters, but it’s not often that such cameos from former heroes, heroines, or even villains is vital to the action & drama of the current story. Is it possible that these books can be read out of order? Especially when you know that not every book in the ten-book-long series is going to keep you riveted. If you stick to the rule, you have to ask yourself, is potentially slogging through some mediocre books in order to get to an excellent one really worth it? And then, what if you get bogged down by the less-than-great books, so that when you even get to the good ones, you don’t really enjoy them? This could potentially feel like trying to eat waffles without the syrup, only to realize that someone has finally walked in with a brand new bottle of it. But, of course, by that time you’re a bit sick of waffles (…and now I realize this metaphor will never work because one could never be sick of waffles, but you see what I’m going for…)

son of the shadowsFor now, I’ve come up with a…somewhat happy medium. If it’s a YA and/or Fantasy series, I will pretty much always read each book from start to finish. So far there have only been two exceptions to this: the first being Juliet Marillier’s
 Sevenwaters Trilogy, in which I’ve only read the first one twice, the third one not at all, and the second one enough times to bend the pages every which way and have the cover half-falling apart. The second exception is Sharon Shinn’s Samaria series, in which the first one has been very well-loved, the fifth one has been…read, and the others I don’t even own. (There are several reasons why I don’t feel guilty about this.) If, however, we are looking at a fairly standalone-type romance series, I will read each book in order the first time. Then, on subsequent rereads I just pick up my favorites, happily aware of everything that I need to know for the stories I actually love.archangel

The only thing to do now is figure out what to do with those books that’ve been published as a series…but then later had a standalone prequel published as well.


Got any ideas? Can you justify reading books out of order, or are you a stickler for chronology, like me?