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Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Literary Connections Phenomenon, or Why I May Wind Up On Hoarders

It's a well-known paradox of the literary life: The more you read, the more you realize you haven't read. And, thus, the more you want to read, the more books you seem to acquire (in the immortal words of Homer Simpson: "Damn you, ebay!") and then suddenly you end up with a to-be-read bookcase, or room, or entire strorage facility that's worthy of winning you a spot on the show Hoarders.

Here's how it happens for me: When I like a new book or writer, I find myself spending hours clicking through the the "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" sections of Amazon for every novel or novelist remotely related to the book I just discovered. I try to find interviews in which the author talks about his/her influences or books s/he recommends. I look at the author's Web site or that of his/her publisher to try find other connections, no matter how tenuous. And, I scour the blogosphere to find out what book bloggers are saying about the novel and what connections to other books or writers they've made. All this usually yields quite a new list of authors and books, and so I set work on ebay, Better World Books, and many of the fine Chicago used bookstores. 

Oftentimes, these literary connections can open up whole new, unexplored literary landscapes. About five years ago, I took a chance on an obscure book of essays titled Consider the Lobster by some hippie-looking dude with three names. My favorite sports columnist, ESPN's The Sports Guy had recommended it, so I figured it was worth a shot. About halfway through the book, I realized my life had changed. I've since read nearly every word David Foster Wallace has written, tried some of his immediate influences like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, and read and loved many of the novelists who DFW has influenced. (Mark Danielewski, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Lethem.)

By way of further example, last year, after reading Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You, I also found via literary connection Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets and Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper — two of my favorite books so far this year.

But this literary connection phenomenon/book hoarding obsession has a seedy underside, too. About six years ago, after reading The Da Vinci Code, I went temporarily crazy. I got obsessed with the whole religion/science/conspiracy genre thing and started reading connected books like Holy Blood, Holy Grail, The Golden Ratio (which was actually kinda interesting), and one of the lowlights of my reading career, a six-book series titled the Zion Legacy Series. The absolute rock bottom, though, was when I tried Dan Brown's Digital Fortress — to this day, my immediate answer to the question "What's the worst book you've ever read?" My shelves are still littered with the detritus of that temporary insanity — obscure, probably-never-to-be read novels like Charles Palliser's The Quincunx and Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

Anyway...

Are you also obsessed with collecting novels connected to new novels you've loved? What impacting literary connections have you made? Any good stories? 

30 comments:

  1. I'm finding lately that my novels tend to come in waves of related content. So for instance, I just finished (hated!) Beatrice and Virgil which was mildly about the Holocaust, and now I'm reading Great House which is mildly about the Holocaust. Plus The Glass Room which is sorta kinda involving the Holocaust. And I sit back and wonder, how the hell did I draw all of these sorta-about-the-Holocaust books to myself? Really?! Weird strings of coincidence happen like this all the time.

    Really must try that guy with three names.

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  2. I definitely recognize that "the more you read, the more you realize you haven't read" syndrome. I try to avoid looking for extra connections, as my actual pile of books to read is already towering, and my list of books I want to read is so long that I'm afraid I don't have enough years left in my life to complete it. The continually-adding-to-it thing doesn't help, either.

    I will admit to there being at least two people whose recommendations (be they about books, music, movies, or just about anything) I feel compelled to look into no matter what, though they don't know this and I want to keep it that way, so I'm not telling who. I'm really not a creepy stalker and I don't want to be mistaken for one.

    My hoarding comes into play with paperbackswap.com. I request books far faster than I can read them.

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  3. I used to read by spontaneous association; something in my current read would connect to another book on my TBR shelf and away I would go. Now, however, I have so many books to read, I feel I'm throwing myself willy-nilly at the pile at large. I'd like to get back to my old way of doing things somehow. Less ARCs, less just released books, more randomness. ;)

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  4. I get really interested in a PERIOD or GENRE. I'll become obsessed with Victorians, or 19th century Russians, or the moderns, or whatever. I'll then do a bit of research about authors from that period and bookmooch as much as I can get. Right now I'm obsessed with collecting theology and philosophy books. I become especially feverish when I notice a "hole" in my library.

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  5. @Andi - I tend to do that, too - sometimes intentionally (my unofficial New York trilogy earlier this year) sometimes by accident. Other readers: Check out Andi's Beatrice and Virgil review - it's scathingly hilarious: http://estellasrevenge.blogspot.com/2010/07/donkey-poo-monkey-poo-beatrice-and.html

    @Kathy - I feel the same way about there not being enough years left not just in my life but in Planet Earth's to get to everything. The thing is, whenever I buy a book, I have every intention of reading it...at some point. Is that the case with you too, or are there some books you buy just to collect?

    @Trisha - Randomness is fun - but can be dangerous, as it tends to build upon itself and before you know it, you're reading Twilight! ;)

    @Jane - Isn't it funny, though, how it's only you that can perceive that "hole" in the library? Does it really exist - as long as it does in your mind, that's all that matters, right? Whoops - did I just ruin the movie Inception for everyone? Anyway - thanks again for the link yesterday!

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  6. I'm guilty of the same thing. And when it's nonfiction, I'll actually go through the bibliographies to pick out books that the author used in preparing his or her work.

    Oh, and do read Quincunx...it is superb! And speaking of Quincunx, that got me started on Wilkie Collins, who sent me to LeFanu, who pointed me to Bram Stoker, who got me started on Kim Newman, who got me started on HP Lovecraft, who led me to Charles Stross, ad infinitum. You see? I know exactly what you mean!

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  7. I tend to go on runs---find an author I like and then blast through their entire corpus. Did this with Tom Robbins and Vonnegut when I was a kid. Did it more recently with Tim Winton and James Salter.

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  8. I'm guilty of this. When I read The Da Vinci Code when I was 12, I started researching a lot about the Holy Grail too and came across Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

    When I first read the YA series -- Percy Jackson and the Olympians -- I started watching shows and movies, and reading books that relate to Greek mythology.

    When I think about what you said, "the more you read, the more you realize you haven't read," I just can't help but think that there really are too many books and so little time!

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  9. Like Ape, I tend to find an author and read a number of their books and then I realize I should probably branch out a bit and I'll go in a whole new direction. Recently I went from a bunch of Christopher Moore and then skipped over to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Not sure where I'll head next.

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  10. My connections are made mostly with non-fiction, where I will pick up a book on a particular topic and as I'm reading it I will be taking down a list of several more books that are related. It makes sense (to me anyway) because there is no one definitive book on any given subject.

    With fiction, I'm a loner. I am picky about what I read (that said, I still have a huge pile of novels on the to-read shelf) and don't look to related recommendations or author influences.

    I totally see myself on Hoarders one day as well at the rate I'm going .....

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  11. Oh, yes, just like you, I intend to read all of the books I am hoarding! I never even put a book on my wish list without fully intending to read it some day. I think the only time I would actually purchase, or in any way acquire, a book without intending to read it is if I were buying a new, fancy copy of an old favorite. The only exception would be books I'm given as gifts . . . mostly from my mom. She's one of those people whose book recommendations don't carry much weight with me.

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  12. Greg-I think everything you have described is utterly sane! I guess I will never get beyond step 1 in bookaholics anonymous. I love the fact that books lead to more books. It's sorta like saying that knowledge leads to more knowledge, wisdom leads to more wisdom, or love leads to more love--where's the problem? Just don't let the TLC crew in your house, and tell the interventionists to pick on someone else!

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  13. Great post! I had to laugh about you clicking through to the customers also bought this section b/c I can do that forever too!!

    I've heard such great things about Jonathan Tropper and really want to read his books.. I just bought This Is Where I Leave You to read soon, and I have Beat the Reaper on my "soon" TBR as well. I read The Financial Lives of the Poets and loved it as well!

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  14. I have that Eco book too. Now that I now you have it, I'll just wait for the review, then read said review and then tell me people I read the book myself. Done. And done.

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  15. yes i have a problem with books - it's called 'intent to posess'. if i see a book i'm even mildly interested in reading i must possess it. i now have more books on my 'to be read' shelf than i can possibly hope to finish by the end of this year. or probably even next year. and that would only be if i stopped buying books altogether. right now i'm trapped in a young adult paranormal fiction fugue where all the books recommended to me by amazon.com in this genre i suddenly must buy. then i read reviews of these books on people's blogs which have links to other books and then i have to have them too. lately i've been forcing myself to read books for grown ups which is helping me wean myself off this addiction and helping me back into the world of 'literature' once more.

    although that Focault's Pendulum has been sitting on my TBR shelf for years. i don't think i'm EVER going to read that book, i should just give it to the second hand shop already.

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  16. I do the same thing - when I find a great author I want everything they've written, anything similar, etc. Dangerous for the to be read pile, but very interesting. I'm currently on a Nigerian author kick though the last one talked about religion so I ended up moving on to a book about a cult, which led me to a book on women's studies, etc etc. I love the random connections that can be made!

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  17. I'd say I'm guilty of temporary obsessions. These obsessions usually follow works of related materials. I've gone from mathematics/physics books to the classics, to science fiction/fantasy, to mainstream "soon to be a movie so I should read it", to business books. My "to be read" shelf is pretty bad, but not horrible, because I buy books one at a time for the most part. I get in trouble when I just get a bunch so I don't have to decide.

    I've thought about a Kindle, but that only leaves me with dissatisfaction in knowing it won't smell like fresh pages out of a new book.

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  18. @NancyO - Quincunx is good, eh? It's awfully long! You know, I just looked and I don't have it anymore - must've given it away during one of my moves. D'oh! I'm off to ebay...:)

    @the Ape - Good God, I can't even imagine what it must've been like to blast through Tom Robbins' catalog all at once. Brain like jelly?

    @Jillian - So did you snore your way through Holy Blood, Holy Grail, too? I liked that the epilogue points out pretty clearly that, of course, they can't prove anything they just spent 500 pages telling us. But it's interesting, right?

    @Red - Hmm - plowing through Christopher Moore may be similarly detrimental to mental health as back-to-back-to-back Tom Robbins. Glad you're still around to tell the tale! ;)

    @Suzanne - Interesting that your fiction/non-fiction habits seem to vary a little. When I do read non-fiction, I find myself stick to the same period, war, region, etc. for a long, long time. I spent almost all of 2009 reading about the CIA, for instance...

    @Kathy - It's funny how delusional that intention is, isn't it? The only time I buy a book I don't intend to read is if I've already read it - yep, if someone loans me a book, I'll read it, give it back, and then go buy it.

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  19. @bibliophiliac - "...knowledge leads to more knowledge." Yep. Exactly. The more you know, the find out you don't know. If TLC does show up here, I'm going to use you as a reference for my sanity! ;)

    @Jenny - Nice! Glad to hear I'm not the only one obsessed with "Customers Also Bought..." I actually use that for music a lot, too. Not to be cliche, but really, if you liked The Financial Loves of the Poets, you'll LOVE This Is Where I Leave you.

    @Ken - Don't hold your breath, fella. May be a long time. Did you schlep through The Name of the Rose? God, was that book boring. Did Jesus laugh?

    @mummazappa - Ha - maybe you, Ken and I should start an Unread Foucault's Pendulum support group. Young adult paranormal fiction, eh? :)

    @Amy - Which Nigerian authors are you reading? I read Half of a Yellow Sun a few years ago - and loved it! And so Amazon pointed me to another writer named Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, but haven't read anything by her.

    @Syntaxin - Wow, you're quite the Renaissance Man! I've thought about a Kindle, too, just for traveling - but then no one else can see what you're reading, and ask you about it....

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  20. Sign me up for the Hoarders' crew,too,because I have so many books that folks tend to be literally awe struck upon viewing my home library:)

    For example,not only do I have several editions of all of Jane Austen's novels,but books about her life,her life and times(food,entertainment,etc)and books that Jane herself enjoyed reading in her lifetime. And that's just for starters,there!

    The best way to deal with this without involving reality show assistance is to get creative with your book storage:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xP3lEFLVT5g

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  21. Great post! I can totally relate to this - I get completely obsessed and beg, borrow, or steal (not really :) every book I can find by a newly-discovered-by-me author. I've also spent quite a bit of time analyzing the "you may also like" feature on Amazon. Plus, there's the book suggestions from other blogs, and the review section in the New Yorker. As a result, our small apartment contains stacks, heaps, shelves, and overflowing piles of books yet to be read. So what do I do? Go to the library and get more books! It's a sickness, I tell you!

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  22. ha! is it a support group to help us make it ok to give the book away, or to try to get into it? either way i'd join :-)

    and yep, paranormal young adult fiction. the shame.

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  23. Greg, we have such a group called Bookcrossing where my Mt TBR has grown from about 8 books per year to ... well, I'm ashamed to tell you. Then there's the bookrings and rays I've put my name down for (which all seem to arrive at the same time!) and my birthday presents I haven't even started on from last year and then the Christmas presents I received that I've only just finished.

    And when it's not those times, it's the sales at the discount stores or the thrift stores where I have to physically keep myself from walking inside so I don't buy a book for the sake of buying a book! (yes, I have *that* problem! My brother's the same, but with music).

    So, when I read your post today, I realised - with great relief - that I'm not alone!

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  24. Not as such. I'm not as much of a hoarder as a compulsive book obtainer. This means I will sign up for ARCs or check out library books that never get finished. On the other hand since I have little money right now, going to the library and picking out 10-12 books (and usually adding 5 more to my reading list) is somewhat cathartic and way healthier on my wallet than actually spending money. But yeah, I definitely understand the hoarder instinct about books.

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  25. Yes, I'm a hoarder too but I actively fight the tendency-- and even though I am a library girl books are coming out of my ears! I'm compelled to give discards a good home and I love to buy funny old vintage books with every intention of reading them... someday. And I cannot resist the sidewalk sale at BooksaMillion. btw, my book acquiring was under control until I started blogging-- apparently, book bloggers are a bad influence. ;o)

    Like Kathy, I avoid extra connections-- I don't seek out info on new fave authors other than what their other works are-- but if a connection pops up accidently, I'm easily led astray.

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  26. Hi! I just wanted to let you know that I've awarded you The Versatile Blogger award on my blog here. :)

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  27. When I use online bookstores and read book blogs I click on so many links that I travel far from my original stop until I don't even know what I was looking for anymore. I've never seen anything so addicting. I love it. And I don't plan on stopping. And just for the record, stockpiling books isn't hoarding, it's literary education that will expand your mind and make you a better person. Oh hush, it is so.

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  28. Hello. My name is Jeanie and I'm a Bookaholic!

    My home office is overflowing with books - those I've read and can't part with, those I've bought on a whim after reading a good review, those I've found following the Amazon recommendations - and this DOESN'T count the hundred or two books I've purchased on my Kindle. It would help me if the publishing world would declare a moritorium on publishing new books for a few years so I could catch up!

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  29. Hey Greg!
    Yep, I do this too...usually it's when I read a blurb on the back of a book I love, then I go investigate the blurber's book, and on and on. Or I see an author on Open Letter and make connections between the translator and other authors that way.
    Plus, with ebay and bookmooch, why not? Other addictions are not this beneficial. I always rationalize that somehow, if I get snowed in here in SoCal that I'll have books to read.
    Most of my interests come from the London Review of Books, where in one article they may reference 8 others in the same genre or style.
    Right now, I'm on an Eastern Europe kick.

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  30. Yep, that about sums it up for me. I read in waves. I'm currently reading everything my little fingers can find about happiness. And children's books.

    I'm thinking this is one of the traits of obsessive-compulsive behavior, right?

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