Our Reading Lives

The Strange Case of Authors I Hypothetically Like

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Peter Damien

Staff Writer

Peter Damien has been reading since time out of mind, writing for a very long time, and been hopelessly lost to a disgraceful addiction to tea for a few years now. He writes short stories, comics, a lot of articles, and novels at an achingly slow pace. When not staring at words, he spends a lot of time in the woods, as befits a man of his hairstyle. He lives with a billion books, a tolerant wife, too many animals, and also two small boys. When it comes to writing, the small boys are, frankly, no help whatsoever. You can find Peter on Twitter, if that's the kind of thing you're into. Twitter: @peterdamien

I think it’s time I admit that some authors are hypothetical to me.

I don’t mean they’re hypothetical in existence or anything, of course. I know they’re real people (except for the ones who are fake, like Carolyn Keene or Robert Ludlum). No, what I’m admitting to is that my interest in these authors is entirely hypothetical and I need to realize that…and stop buying all their books. It’s a weird problem to have, and I have a few authors to whom it applies, but I won’t mention too many (I can’t decide if that seems unkind or not) so I’ll just mention a few and we’ll go from there.

Litany of the Long Sun by Gene WolfeGene Wolfe is the biggest example of this that comes to mind, on my shelves. Years ago, I read his Long Sun set of four novels. In hindsight, I’m not positive how much I really enjoyed them, but I read them. He was the kind of author I should probably like, based on the other authors I did like. And I didn’t actively dislike him or think his writing was bad, so I just assumed I was a fan. When in bookstores, I’d buy his books now and then, and I enjoyed the collection I was building up…but it took me quite a long time to realize I wasn’t actually reading any of them.

So why is this a “hypothetical author” instead of just “author I don’t like?” well, because it never amounts to dislike, and that’s why it can take so long to notice…if one ever does. The reason I kept buying the books is because I thought I was a fan, sure, but also because I liked the premises of most of them. Hence the tricky bit. You think you like the author, and all evidence seems to point to you and that author getting along smashingly…except for the damning bit where you don’t read their stuff.

In Gene Wolfe’s case, I’ve noticed so recently that I haven’t gotten rid of all the ones I own yet, nor have I yet decided to. It would be so much easier if I just disliked his books or flat-out thought he was a bad writer.

what_i_talk_about_when_i_talk_about_running_1.largeThere are even trickier cases of author hypotheticalism (that can’t be a word, don’t tell the editors). For example, there’s Haruki Murakami. Everyone I know is pretty nuts about him, and again the plots and bits of his books I encounter seem really cool…but actually sitting down with the books do nothing for me. I’ve tried repeatedly with several and I just can’t engage with them. But…I am a big fan of his non-fiction. I’ve read piles and piles of articles by or about him, I’ve read an awful lot of interviews with him, I’ve read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and I’ve adored all of this stuff. But his novels? I don’t own any. I gave away the two I did own.

I feel as if somewhere in here, I should offer a declarative solution, or opinion on this topic. I should tell you to identify these authors and books in your library and weed them or, or find a way to identify them before the purchase happens, or something. That latter one isn’t a bad idea – it saves you money for other books you’ll be ravenous for – but that’s as close as I have to a hard statement here. The fact is, I don’t see this as a huge problem, just a quirk of the reading life. One that I expect is not limited to me alone (but who knows, I suppose I could be some weird freakish outlier here).

The reason I don’t think it’s that big a deal is, I don’t really hate any of the authors this happens with, so I can’t muster any ire over the matter. Just a vague awareness that in the future, when a Jack McDevitt book really grabs me with its plot, I should consider getting it from the library instead of buying it. Somehow, I never finish them. Not for lack of quality, just for lack of compatibility.

Also, perhaps one day we’ll connect with these authors who do nothing for us now. So maybe we won’t want to buy more of that author’s books quite yet, but we’ll consider the ones we’ve got a future investment. There are worse things. There are also Little Free Libraries which are perfect homes for these, if you ask me. Maybe ignite someone’s brain in the ways they failed to spark us.

For now, I’m going to go stare at a few authors on my shelves who I haven’t read and consider them closely. It’ll be like the Spanish Inquisition, but more expected.