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In Praise of the Backlist: On (Maybe) Reading More Not-Brand-New Books in 2017

Claire Handscombe


Claire Handscombe moved from Europe to DC in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but actually – let’s be honest – because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan, and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives. She also hosts the Brit Lit Podcast, a fortnightly show of news and views from British books and publishing. Blog: the Brit Lit Blog. Twitter: @BookishClaire

I love new books. Shiny new books. Buzzy new books. I love going to author events and having new books signed. I love walking into bookstores and browsing the New Fiction tables. I love being the person in my friendship circle who’s read the new books, who knows what’s out and what’s worth picking up. I love having a wealth of books to choose from when I’m writing my “top 10 books of this year” December blogposts.


I also love old books.

Okay, not old, old. Like, maybe a year or two old. (My flatmate laughs at me. She’s into the classics.)

I have dozens — let’s be honest, probably hundreds — of backlist books piled up in my apartment here and accumulating on my ereader, not to mention those in storage in various countries.

Some of these books are in those piles because I heard an interesting interview by the author or because I read about them in a writing magazine or because someone recommended them to me or gave them to me or because I’ve always meant to read them or because there’s something about them that tells me it’s a me kind of a book.

Some of these books were the shiny new book of the moment and I missed the moment and moved on, and no one’s ever mentioned the book to me again in person or on a podcast or on the internet.

I would like to read fewer of those books this year — the ones that buzzed for a while and then were silent. I would also like to buy fewer of them, only to have them gather guilt-laden dust. I’d like, instead, to go back and read some of the books I already have, or that I don’t yet have but that people are still talking about more than six months after their publication.

Of course, there’s no way to know immediately whether a buzzy book is going to become a new favourite of mine or a modern classic — or even just to stand the test of a year or two. Faced with such a book, I have a choice: risk being disappointed, or wait. This year, I’m leaning more towards wait.

I read a substantial number of good books in 2016 — four-star books, books that were a perfectly pleasant way to pass the time, but books, nonetheless, that I’d expected to be blown away by, based on what I’d heard about them. Instead, I could have been making my way through the list of books that I really do want to read one day, if only I could stop being distracted.

And there are other bonuses to the backlist, too. Paperbacks are less expensive and take up less of that precious and ever-decreasing shelf space. Sometimes, an author’s best book is their first or their second, because those were the urgent stories for them to tell, and instead of being a little underwhelmed by their new release, I can be delighted by an earlier novel. Or maybe their backlist book was their only book and they’ll be eternally grateful for my support when I tweet them to tell them how much I’ve enjoyed it. And sometimes, away from those shiny New Fiction tables or browsing the shelves of a second-hand bookshop, I can find a book I’ve never heard of, that no-one is talking about, but that I come to fall in love with. It feels like my secret and then I get to tell others about it.

Let’s face it, though: it’s hard. I love bookish podcasts, and the enthusiasm of the hosts is usually contagious. I love following booknerds on Twitter. I love my Book of the Month subscription and the feel of the beautiful hardbacks it delivers. I love nerding out with my fellow Rioters over new releases.  I love getting advance review copies.

And when I hear about a book over and over and everyone seems to be talking about how wonderful it is, my resolve to wait weakens and then all too often splutters and dies. Also, how can I hang out with the cool kids of publishing and write my own “favourite books of 2017” list if I haven’t read enough of them to know? Existential crisis alert.

Maybe the answer isn’t to read fewer new books. Maybe it’s to read more older books too. Just to read more, in general.

But then again, isn’t that always the answer?