Monday, January 17, 2011

Books in Threes: Some Thoughts On Trilogies

Don't judge me too harshly, but one of my many reading quirks is that I never read a trilogy (or series) until all the novels in that trilogy (or series) have been published. Waiting sucks, but I'd rather wait for an entire series to be out, and not know fully what I'm waiting for, then to start a series, get hooked, and agonizingly wait for the next book — all the time worried I'll forget some important detail in the previous book(s) that would have led to a fuller understanding of the book(s) to follow. That's inscrutable logic, isn't it? 

One of the reasons that I'd held off reading the Millennium Trilogy for so long is that there had always been rumors of a fourth novel. Now, that rumor's confirmed, and the timing makes "perfect" sense, since I finally caved and started The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo precisely five days before the Guardian's report. You know how at a restaurant you can always ensure that your food will arrive by getting up to go to the bathroom? Same principle here.

Anyway, the first of the much ballyhooed Millennium Trilogy started very slowly but has dramatically picked up the pace. So, yeah, I'm enjoying it, and it's gotten me to thinking about other great trilogies out there. Though I haven't read either (ashamed!) the discussion of literary trilogies usually starts with either John Dos Passos U.S.A. Trilogy or Paul Auster's New York trilogy. Beyond the literary, the fantasy and history genres seem to be rife with trilogies. Even though its prequel The Hobbit is still probably more widely read than the novels of the trilogy themselves, The Lord of the Rings trilogy may still be the most-read trilogy of all time. In regards to historical fiction, two trilogies I have read that I really loved both were Civil War-related: Jeff and Michael Shaara's trio of novels (Gods and Generals, The Killer Angels, and The Last Full Measure) and John Jakes' epic trilogy about the Hazards and Maines (North and South, Love and War, and Heaven and Hell). 

As one final note, I've always thought it interesting that many readers are afraid of long, thousand-page novels, but don't seem to have that same terror of trilogies, that when taken collectively, add up to much longer pieces of fiction. I can see how a reader with this idea would argue, "Well, if I don't like the trilogy after the first book, I can just quit, and I'm not committed to reading another two-thirds of a novel I'm not enjoying." But the kind of reader who would quit after one novel in a trilogy is also the kind of reader who would quit after one-third of a very long novel s/he isn't enjoying, right? So I'm not sure I buy that logic. Anyway, no real point here — just an observation on others' reading quirks.

What are your favorite books in threes? 


  1. Of what I've read recently, I'd say Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials is now on my favorite trilogy list.

  2. Ha! I have a post written about starting series/trilogies/prequels before they are complete scheduled to go up tomorrow (I'm ahead of the game this week). I'm not daunted by long novels, nor by trilogies. In fact, I seem a glutton for punishment in that I always start them before all volumes are available.

    I really liked New York Trilogy, though those three stood on their own quite well, and His Dark Materials, too.

  3. I like your trilogy reading quirk. I usually end up reading a series after the latest books has come out only because that's when I get around to it. I'd actually like to pick up a trilogy at the beginning and then have the wait in between books.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts on TGWTDT and subsequent books.

  4. "But the kind of reader who would quit after one novel in a trilogy is also the kind of reader who would quit after one-third of a very long novel s/he isn't enjoying, right?"

    Disagree. Once I get into a book I will almost never quit reading it, even if I'm not enjoying it. But if I finish a book I hate I'm not going to read the sequel. Heck, even if I LIKE a book in a series I don't always read the follow-up.

    I think it is much more common for someone to stop after one or two books in a series than stop a book partway through (most readers I know make it a point to finish everything they read).

    As for that fourth Millennium book, I wouldn't worry - it's still just a pipe dream at this point since it hasn't been written and won't come out until a LOT of legal wrangling is taken care of. The trilogy as it stands is pretty cohesive too. I'd be afraid a fourth book would actually introduce new loose ends. I'll still read it if it ever comes out though.

  5. My favourite trilogies: as for literary, it has to be Evelyn Waugh's WWII trilog, Sword of Honour. Men At Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender... crazy thing is, I haven't even read the third one yet. But 1 and 2 are great novels.

    Then there's Pratchett's Bromeliad -- Truckers, Diggers, Wings. It's Young Adult, but Pratchett YA is no different to the rest of his stuff.

    Then there's the Hitchkiker's Guide to the Galaxy. One of the best trilogies, because it manages to pack 5 books in!

    I would definitely give up mid-series more often than mid-book. Also, three short books can be better than one long because a) you get more I-finished-a-book buzz, and b) you get more beginnings and endings than middle. I don't know why that's a good thing, but it feels like it is.

  6. I agree with Amy about "His Dark Materials", I loved those books.

    I also wait for all the books to be published before starting a trilogy. I do the same with DVDs (wait for the box set) because I'm way too impatient for my own good.

  7. Interesting reading quirk. How do you wait that long? Jean Auel (Earth's Children series) has a 12 year gap between the 4th and 5th book in the series and a 9 year gap between the 5th and 6th. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles started writing the Morland Dynasty books in 1980 and is still writing them. Diana Gabaldon takes over 2 years to write the next Outlander installment. I can't imagine waiting for all of them to finish writing before I read the series.

    I think I agree with Joel. I loathed Anna Karenina and slogged my way through that sucker anyway. That's only 1 book I wasted my hard earned money on though. No way am I going to go out and buy books 2 and 3 in a trilogy if I thought the first book was terrible.

  8. Trilogies are almost a quaint notion these days,since most series have more than three under their belt(even Twilight,which I know many shrink from has four titles,with a slim novella added on as a charity fund raiser).

    I like the whole trilogy deal,even if the first one that comes to my mind are the original Star Wars films:)

    Interested to hear what you think about Girl With The Dragon Tattoo;I'm slowly reading the second book and worried about the Hollywood remake of the first one. Apparently,the script changes the ending and tweaks the main character's flaws quite a bit. Personally,I enjoyed the Swedish film version-Noomi Rapace is an amazing Lisbeth.

  9. I'll back up Joel, I don't think there is going to be a fourth book. It would have to be finished by someone else, that assumes that the family and the girlfriend resolve their disputes, which probably won't happen since there is so much money at stake. The YA genre is overrun with trilogies. Seriously, like every damn one of them to come out now is part of a trilogy, the most famous right now probably being The Hunger Games.

    My daughter and I have started watching Lost on Netflix, and I was just thinking that I'm glad I don't have to wait from one season to the next!!!!

  10. @Amy - Thanks for the suggestion - that's not one I'm familiar with, but I'll definitely look into it.

    @Kerry - Wow! Great minds. Yeah, I'm not daunted by and always finish long books, too - but I had always thought I was in the minority in that.

    @Red - You'd enjoy the wait between books? Hmmm. Interesting. ;) I usually grab the first books as soon as they're published (case in point: Ken Follett's Fall of Giants), but never read them until they're all out.

    @Joel - I agree with you that it's probably more common to stop after the first novel in a trilogy than to stop midway through a long book. But I disagree that most readers finish everything they start. I do, but I've found I'm in the minority that. Anyway, my only point here is that both types of discontinuations happen frequently, and if you're the kind of reader who stops in one instance, you'll probably stop in the other as well. Maybe the fourth book is a pipe dream, but that Guardian article seems pretty sure that Larsson's partner is going to finish - apparently she helped him write the first three, a fact which is probably not widely known.

    @Ben - Ah, good call on Evelyn Waugh's trilogy. Forgot about that one. And, yeah, I think you're right about it being more common to stop in the middle of a series than a long book. I stopped after two Rabbit Angstrom novels, 'cause I was bored, but I've never not finished a long book.

  11. @Sam - I do the same with DVDs, too - especially shows. Glad to find a kindred spirit there! ;)

    @Holly - I guess the biggest reason is that it's usually apparent when the end is. In the case of Gabaldon, since you mentioned her, aren't those books pretty much going to continue ad infinitum? Heck, I even resisted starting Harry Potter until recently to be sure there wouldn't be anymore. Strange, I know - but it's how I roll! ;)

    @lady T - Ha - Star Wars is definitely THE trilogy, and I agree that the idea of the trilogy is a quaint notion these days. Especially when the books (or movies) sell well - why stop at three? ;) Can't wait to type up some thoughts on Dragon Tattoo! It's got my mind racing. My intention is to rent the Swedish version of the movie very soon - you confirm what I've heard from folks that have seen the movies: Noomi Rapace was born to play Lisbeth.

    @Sandy - That's how I felt about the Wire on DVD - I can't imagine how people waited a week between each episode. I was annoyed enough having to wait the few days between Blockbuster shipments! That Guardian article does sound pretty sure that Larssen's partner's going to continue writing the fourth, but who knows. Oh yeah, Hunger Games - of course. How could I have forgotten that one! ;)

  12. I was just having this same conversation with a colleague this morning about The Hunger Games trilogy. She's got the same quirk about not wanting to read a trilogy until they're all out. I don't know that I could do that, but I can certainly understand the frustration especially when the books don't really stand alone very well. This also explains why I bought the third book in the Millenium series from Amazon UK well before it was out in the US.

  13. You made an interesting observation about trilogies vs. 1000 page novels. What in fact makes a trilogy a trilogy? If you think about it, the breaks between books are crafted so that the story is paced in a much different manner than it would were it one contiguous story. I could be wrong about that, but when I think of The Lord of the Rings or a more recent trilogy such as Janice Hardy's The Healing Wars, I think there is indeed a different pattern in the tension and pace-setting of trilogies.

  14. It is funny that some people cringe at a 1000 pg epic but read the equivalent in trilogies/series. I love both so don't see much difference in the two-- lots of epics are divided into books that just happen to be bound together-- I just started War&Peace and it has 8 books-- my edition is paperback, thank goodness, but still it sure would be lots comfier to read in bed if it was divided into volumes.

    As for trilogies/series, I don't wait till to start but it is wonderful to find one that is complete!

  15. I can relate, I hate having to wait for the second and third (fourth, fifth etc) books, but sometimes I can't help myself and have to read the first one because I just can't wait I'm too curious. Most of the trilogy stuff I read is YA/Children's - too many to name!

  16. "The Regeneration Triology" by Pat Barker. I recommend it without hesitation.

    I am really curious what you think of Larsson's work after reading the whole trilogy. I figured it wouldn't be my cup of tea, so I watched the Swedish version on TV instead. Quite entertaining, but dare I say to be glad I haven't spent my time reading those books?

  17. I have the exact same issue with TV shows. So many shows come out that I think I would love... but I can't STAND having to wait from week to week. I usually wait for at least 2 seasons to come to DVD before I let myself get hooked on a show.

    But book wise... maybe it was the entire 10 years of Harry Potter excitement/midnight parties that have translated into not having the same issue with books. I tend to try to distance series so that I have time to reflect on each work as a whole (Girl.w.D.Tattoo is a great example). The New York Trilogy is on my list of 52 books for the year so excited to get there as well!!

    Glad to see you are enjoying it! I agree... slow start (so much sweedish business talk..ugh) but I think the climax is a nice pay off.

  18. My favorite trilogy is His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. When I read the first book in 4th grade, it was the longest book I had ever read and I was so proud of myself. I had to wait for the books to come out over the next 5 years or so - I definitely understand your logic in waiting until all books are out before you start reading.

    I also just had to point out that at the time of me reading your post, you had 333 followers. Kind of ironic.

  19. @home - I remembered your post about ordering Hornet's Nest from the UK publisher when I was writing it. See, to me that's a cautionary tale for the extreme measures I'd have to go through if I didn't just patiently wait for all books to be published. ;)

    @Literary Magic - Good point about the difference in pacing. And there are dozens of other differences, no doubt, in choices an author would make depending on whether s/he sets out to write a long novel vs. a series.

    @Lesa - Yeah, I love both too! Good luck with War and Peace - I'm hoping to start it some time soon.

    @mummazappa - Yeah, sometimes it's hard to wait, but to me, it always leads to a more satisfying reading experience. Worth the wait, as they say.

    @superheidi - Very good recommendation - thanks! A Booker Prize winner, no less. The Millennium books aren't really my cup of tea either - but I was intrigued both by their popularity and the fact that Blomqvist is a magazine editor (which I am)...I like the first one well enough - some more thoughts to come on Thursday.

    @P&P - I am very similar to you with TV shows. I just put the first two seasons of Breaking Bad in my Blockbuster queue, but only after I could confirm that season three would be out soon and I could watch them all before season four starts! I was always amused by you "younger" folks and your midnight Harry Potter parties - and then people would stay up all night reading the book, and then you'd be sad again for another two years. How is that better than just waiting until they're all out??? ;) Let me know when you read New York - maybe I'll pick it up too and we can discuss.

    @L.L. - Nice - another vote for the Pullman trilogy. Gonna have to check it out. And, holy crap! You're right about the follower number - that's totally uninintentionally awesome!

  20. I too vote for Pullman's His Dark Materials! I read it once to myself and once aloud to my husband. It's incredible, one, like the LOTR trilogy, that you can read again and again and keep picking up stuff.

    I also love the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, by Sigrid Undset. It's a medieval Norwegian saga, and won the Nobel Prize in 1928.

    The other thing about trilogies or even series is that I prefer to have them all in one volume. I don't know why; might have something to do with the fact that I MUST own all the books in a series or I'm perturbed, and finding them in one nice volume is comforting. Or something. Okay, not for Harry Potter (but yes for all seven Narnia chronicles)...

    I do tend to save trilogies till I have all three books now. I didn't use to, but I still haven't read the Millennium trilogy, and I'm not even tempted. When the paperback of the third comes out, then I can start. It has to match, after all. :)