Please welcome Peter Higgins back to the blog! Enjoy his post, and be sure to keep your eye out for TRUTH AND FEAR, out March 25th!
Books Without Covers: The End Of Chancy, Contextless Reading?
In my Amazon account I have 93 wish lists. 93 lovingly curated hamster nests, each collecting a particular genre, a particular topic, a particular thread of thought. I link them in Evernote to Wikipedia entries and relevant blog posts. It’s a kind of hobby, a satisfaction in its own right.
The internet transformed my reading world. Amazon. Wikipedia. Google. Ebay. Everything was brilliant. It was the end of random browsing in bookshops, picking something from whatever happened to be there. Now I could find exactly the books I wanted, even if I didn’t already know they existed. Almost any book ever published could be got and read. There were genres and histories and traditions I knew nothing of, but now I could learn about them. In this inexhaustible new world all richness was there. Pull on any thread … Buy them. Read them.
Except, increasingly, I don’t actually read them. I list more books than I can buy, and buy more books than I can read. It’s almost as if I don’t need to read them any more, because I know them already. The review, the blog post, the Wikipedia plot summary. Each book comes surrounded by a cloud of pre-digested context and digested opinion. It’s great, but I’m starting to miss the old, random ways of stumbling into a book and staying there.
When I first started to read, I knew almost nothing about the books I chose, except what was on the cover. Books then could be strange, scary, contextless. I was drawn in again and again by the magic of empty names. Algis Budrys. Theodore Sturgeon. Cordwainer Smith, Samuel R Delany. Ursula K Le Guin. J R R Tolkien. Poul Anderson. Joy Chant. Andre Norton. A E van Vogt. For an adolescent growing up among Joneses and Davieses these were alien names, absolutely different from the Agathas and the Jacks and the Hammonds and the Dennises on my parents’ shelves. As alien as the creatures and planetary landscapes in the cover art. That was what drew me in. The names were part of the covers and promised strangeness. Strangeness was all I needed.
I knew nothing about where these strange books came from. No sequence. No context. No genre. I thought Algis Budrys was a woman and Andre Norton was a man. When I started Lord of the Rings I didn’t know what it was. No idea at all. I’d never heard of hobbits before. It was absolutely, wonderfully shocking to find out what that book contained.
I vividly remember the last time I bought books on the basis of their covers alone. It must have been around 2000, when I picked up – in quick succession, on bookstore shelves – Little, Big by John Crowley and The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. For some random, unconscious reason these books jumped out at me. It was the covers, I think. The titles. They were contextless, except they were in series labeled Fantasy Masterworks and SF Masterworks. It was those two fabulous books, the huge unexpected strangeness and possibilities in them that I discovered by accident and surprise, which changed me, made me want to write myself.
I love the internet and what it’s done for reading and writing. The opportunities for learning and discovery. The sense of not being alone. The internet has connected me with living genres and communities of readers and writers, and it got me published – I’d never have found the magazines that took my first stories without it. And it’s connected me with my own past. I’ve rebought comic books I lost years ago. I’ve rebought and learned more about all those strange texts and authors I once discovered by chance. Books have a new thing now, which didn’t exist before: the reader’s voice, the feedback loops, the online communities that build and change their own genres.
But increasingly I find myself mourning the loss of scary, alien, authorless and contextless books. Random, serendipitous reading. Going into strange territories. Books where all you knew was the cover. Now it sometimes feels as if books don’t have covers at all.
About Peter Higgins:
Peter Higgins read English at Oxford University and Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. He was a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford and worked in the British Civil Service. His short stories have appeared in Fantasy: Best of the Year 2007, Best New Fantasy 2, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fantasy Magazine, Zahir and Revelation, and in Russian translation in the St Petersburg magazine Esli. He lives with his family in South Wales.