Oftentimes, we read an author’s best and/or most famous novel before moving on to her or his other works. This can be a personal choice, or the result of assigned reading from our school days — when teachers introduced us to top novels such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, etc.
But sometimes we don’t read an author’s best and/or most famous novel first, and the reasons vary. Maybe we want to experience an author chronologically, to see how her or his writing style developed from the first novel on. Or perhaps we want to first read a short book by an author, to sample how we feel about the writer’s prose prowess. Or maybe we want to initially try a book less challenging than the author’s masterpiece. Or perhaps we mostly use the library rather than buy books, so we’re at the mercy of what’s on the shelves at the time.
Whatever the reason, if we end up liking an author before reading her or his top effort, we have an even greater sense of anticipation as we at last start the writer’s most transcendent title.
I thought about all this last week when I finally began Of Human Bondage — widely considered the best of W. Somerset Maugham’s many novels. OHB is always checked out of my local library, I don’t have much of a book-buying budget, and I don’t use a Kindle, so during the past couple of years I instead read the Maugham novels my library did have on its shelves: The Razor’s Edge, The Painted Veil, The Moon and Sixpence, and Cakes and Ale. All excellent books, so I figured if the much longer OHB has an even better reputation, it must be great indeed. And after reading a good chunk of OHB this week, I’m VERY impressed so far.
In other cases, I tried various authors’ shortest or near-shortest novels before deciding whether to tackle their longer iconic works. For instance, the first George Eliot book I read was the 200-something-page Silas Marner, which I loved so much that I quickly polished off much of that author’s longer fiction. Middlemarch is considered her masterpiece — and it is indeed a magnificent accomplishment — but Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda also approach that rarefied level of quality.
I chose Ethan Frome as my first Edith Wharton book because it was a novella, and it packed such an emotional wallop that I quickly moved on to that writer’s two best (and lengthier) works of fiction: The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth.
Same for Henry James, whose short The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller got me interested enough to read that author’s widely acclaimed The Portrait of a Lady and his lesser-known but subtly masterful The Ambassadors. Both are many-paged novels.
While many people read Charles Dickens’ short A Christmas Carol before segueing into his longer and more intricate fiction, I eased into Dickens with the not-hard The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club — which was not only the author’s first novel but has the reputation of being his funniest. It is indeed hilarious.
For which authors did you read the best and/or most famous novel first? For which authors did you take a different reading route — and why?
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.