Returning to a Canon Can Be a Blast

Have you ever read many or most of an author’s works, then moved on to other authors, and then years later returned to read one of the few works you missed in the canon of that first author?

(Also, did you ever start a blog post with an overly long question? ๐Ÿ™‚ )

I’ve done the return-to-canon thing for various reasons. Often, I binge-read a certain author only to stop when I realized my local library didn’t have the rest of her or his booksโ€ฆuntil it did. Or I didn’t want to read an author’s so-called “lesser” efforts but later changed my mind. Or, as much as I might have liked an author, I wanted some variety, so I moved on to other authors rather than complete the first author’s canonโ€ฆuntil I decided otherwise. Or I returned to an author for a newer work that had yet to be published at the time of my original reading binge.

It can be very interesting doing the return thing — enjoying a favorite writer’s novel or story you never read before, perhaps being disappointed, seeing the similarities and differences in the newly read vs. previously read work, etc. And of course reading an author when one is older can affect our reaction to a book.

Anyway, I just returned to Herman Melville. Years ago I read most of his novels, novellas, and short stories: Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, Pierre, Typee, Omoo, Redburn, White-Jacket, Benito Cereno, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and so on. Then, when I was at the library last month, I saw Mardi on the shelves when it hadn’t been there before. Hmmโ€ฆ

I’m in the middle of that 1849 novel now, and it’s quite a tale of the sea — where most but not all of Melville’s writing was set. We follow the sometimes-bizarre adventures and meet-ups of two sailors who abandon ship far from any shore, and watch the story line move from realistic to allegorical. It’s also interesting to see how the author’s rich prose, memorable characterizations, fascinating philosophical ruminations, and detailed ocean-life descriptions were maturing two years before everything came together with Moby-Dick — the 1851 classic that unfortunately did not sell well or get much critical love until decades after Melville’s 1891 death. So far I’m not finding Mardi to be one of Melville’s best works — it’s over-long, eventually rambles, and there’s a disturbingly sexist depiction of a Samoan woman — but the first part at least is worth the time.

George Eliot? I read four of her five most famous novels — Middlemarch, Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, and Adam Bede — almost consecutively a decade ago before turning my attention again to other authors. Left in the lurch until a couple years later was Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda, which turned out to be as good or better than her stellar earlier efforts.

For whatever reason, it took me many a moon to get to Charlotte Bronte’s Villette after reading the author’s other work — including at least five rereads of her exceptional Jane Eyre. I found the semi-autobiographical Villette to be very good but often missing the powerful emotional impact of Bronte’s more famous novel.

I loved reading War and Peace and Anna Karenina as a young man, but didn’t get back to Leo Tolstoy for many years. I finally read a number of Tolstoy’s novellas and short stories not long ago — Hadji Murat, The Kreutzer Sonata, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, “Master and Man,” etc. — and they were all outstanding, too.

Edith Wharton? I read her four best-known novels — Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and The Custom of the Country — nearly in a row, along with two of her earliest books not at the level of that compelling quartet. Then, much later, I was urged to read her ghost stories — which turned out to be as good as that genre gets.

It was the opposite format scenario with Edgar Allan Poe. I read most of his riveting short stories as a kid and teen — decades before trying his only novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which was not bad at all.

There’s also the case of reading all or most of an author’s work and then, years later, returning when she or he writes something new. I did that with The Handmaid’s Tale sequel The Testaments (excellent) after reading a dozen of Margaret Atwood’s great novels years earlier, and with J.K. Rowling’s addictive Cormoran Strike/Robin Ellacott crime series penned well after the seven Harry Potter books. I slipped Rowling’s absorbing standalone novel The Casual Vacancy in there, too.

Your reading experiences related to this week’s theme?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about the overwhelming approval of a bond referendum to fund much-needed upgrades to my town’s aging school buildings — is here.

96 thoughts on “Returning to a Canon Can Be a Blast

  1. My ‘return to canon’ moments, largely, I realize, involved crime fiction authors– I have read all of Raymond Chandler– novels and short stories, all of Dashiell Hammett– novels and short stories, and nearly all of Ross MacDonald’s novels over the years- Hammet’s novels I’ve read at least twice. (I regret my return to one of them “The Dain Curse”, which second time around I found to be not up to standard.) And nearly all of Lee Child’s Reacher series– I’d love the opportunity see them all in one place so that I might find the few I’ve missed.

    But as a roots music lover, I have a series of such binges and returns– Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Robert Johnson, Papa Charlie Jackson, Charley Patton, Lemon Jefferson,Memphis Minnie Douglas, Muddy Waters, Ernest Tubb and Jerry Lee Lewis.

    To say nothing of the Swinging Sixties groups– my teen years were filled with their sound, and over the years since, I have gone back in for listen– hard to separate nostalgia from affection, and no reason really, to try. The Beach Boys (Pet Sounds and after), Beatles, Kinks, The Band have remained in rotation, and less often, The Rolling Stones.

    I could go on and on and on, I really could.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! I enjoyed seeing your crime fiction and musical “returns.” Crime fiction can be addicting, which can spur the desire to complete or nearly complete an author canon in that genre. (I’ve read 22 of the 26 Reacher novels, and will probably get to the new 26th one within a couple of months.) And YouTube certainly makes it easy to revisit favorite music we might not have in a personal collection.

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  2. Most inspirational post.I have read many authors novels but Hardy and Jen Austin’s novels are most intresting for mine specially.I like mostly written works by famous poets of medival era and Shakespeare’s dramas and other written works.Now a days,I am reading urdu literatures.WOW,Most entertain and heart thrilling,those are.Even though all classical written works of many languages.In the urdu literature,I have ended after reading all the stories and novels of Saadat Hasan Ali Manto and now I am reading Ismat Chugtayi’s Novel”Tedi Lakeerein”. Perhaps your choices are wonderful.I will try to read those at all.thanks for sharing your motivative thought about classical novels,dear Dave Astor!!โฃ๏ธ๐Ÿ™โฃ๏ธ

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  3. I thought of Mary Stewart. I read most of her novels before I read her first one – “Madame, Will You Talk?” It was okay, but not as well-written as her later novels. I think that if that was my introduction to Stewart I may not have read any more, thus missing out on the Merlin Series (my all-time favorite.)

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    • Thank you, vanaltman! Very interesting thought that if we start out with a lesser novel by a good author, we might be discouraged from reading other books by that writer. Glad you didn’t read Mary Stewart’s first work until later!

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  4. Having read “The Red and the Black”, I next took on “The Charterhouse of Parma”,and then “The Life of Henri Brulard”, and “Lucien Leuwen”. Had no idea, past “On Love’, which I read next, just how much Stendhal had written that was not fiction, more or less. He wrote guidebooks of Italy (though most of these seem to be taken up with collateral matters and observations, and serve not very well at acquainting travelers with points of interest or routes or practical pointers), assessments of painters and opera composers, recastings of old Italian legends, etc. etc.– as well as a goodly number of reviews for journals in France, Italy and Great Britain.

    Unless one becomes enthralled by Stendhal’s most famous 2 novels, and in the process, his direct and insightful point of view, it’s unlikely that his lesser, and mostly unfinished works, would entice a reader to pursue all of his oeuvre.

    But me– I fell for that authorial voice from jump, and read a good deal of Stendhal in a relatively short period of time, even going so far as to read “The Charterhouse of Parma” three times, in two translations. And for the last few weeks, have read and enjoyed Jonathan Keates’ biography.

    Stendhal was a member of Napoleon’s general staff during the disastrous Russian campaign, officially oversaw the collection of looted art Napoleon brought to the Louvre, met and conversed with Lord Byron, William Hazlitt, Eugene Delacroix, Victor Hugo,, Bellini, Lafayette, and yet somehow remained socially, for most of his lifetime, a minor sort of intriguing devil’s advocate whose pronouncements, essays and journalism occasionally stirred a bit of controversy, in the salons of Paris and Italy he frequented. He wrote his novels relatively late, and, while he lived, was known more for his non-fiction.

    Posterity has corrected this misunderstanding.

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    • Thank you, jhNY! That’s a GREAT summary of Stendhal’s life and work. For one thing, I didn’t know that he wrote a lot of nonfiction. And, yes, if one is enthralled by a book or two by an author, we can be very willing to explore other things that author wrote — whether or not they’re anywhere near as good.

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    • Shoulda read all the way to the end dept.:

      Now that my Stendhal biography is winding down, I see I should amend my assessment. He does, toward the end of his life, enjoy a renown and exalted company, dining regularly with Delacroix, and, as a member of a social club, Charles Nodier, Balzac and the composer Meyerbeer. He performed the job of tour guide to George Sand and her companion on their tour of Italy.He also earned the enmity of Berlioz and Ingres, respectively, on account of his pronouncements on music. Ingres refused him admittance to his house after Stendhal claimed there was no melody in Beethoven(!). Most surprisingly: he was a pronounced and beloved influence on Eugenie, the future wife of Napoleon III, visiting her sister and her during their girlhood, telling thrilling tales of the life and times of Napoleon I.

      He was also very favorably looked upon by Alexander Turgenev, a distant relative of Ivan. This Turgenev was likewise guided around Rome by Stendhal, about whom he wrote: “Impossible to find a better companion.” His affection may have produced an interest in “The Red and the Black” in his friend, Alexander Pushkin, who read the novel in May and June of 1831, “swiftly enlisting himself among the happy few”, as biographer Jonathan Keates put it.ย 

      I looked in my Falen and found: “The sceptic Bayle he quite devoured’ writes Pushin in his last recounting of Onegin’s reading enthusiasms, Chapter 8, verse 35. Falen’s notes would attribute this man Bayle as being one Pierre Bayle, but I think the attribution may be mistaken. Bayle would be among the oldest of those cited, a philosopher and author of a dictionary of historical criticism. But ‘Bayle’ may easily be a spelling variant for ‘Beyle’, Stendhal’s actual surname, and given Pushkin’s enthusiasm for “The Red and the Black”, it’s at least likely that Stendhal is the author to whom Pushkin refers.

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      • Very interesting, jhNY! Thanks for all those details! Yes, one can find out a lot of things in the latter part of a book. Heck, I liked “Mardi” less and less the more I read it. Sounds like Stendhal lived quite a fascinating life, and I like the connections you cited to Pushkin and other bold-faced names!

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  5. Well, not being as well read as yourself, but having had read I need to think.
    There are authors I glutted on in the past. Have I picked any up again? No, but now I feel like reading Joy Fielding’s new books, that I have not read. There are a few since my glut days.

    I read lots and lots and lots of Harold Robbins books. Doubt I will read another. I do wonder if I really liked the books as much as I liked stealing them from my mom’s secret closet.

    Wait… yes… Shakespeare. I recently reread Romeo and Juliette. It’s as great as it ever was.

    Hmm, I adore Agatha Christie. Haven’t read any in ages, but I believe I could enjoy another I haven’t read.

    I did glut out on Shehanne Moore’s books. There’s one left to read… until a new on comes out.

    So, perhaps a a bit of pedestrian list, but I have a list!!!! Yay!

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    • Thank you, Resa! Not a pedestrian list at all!

      Loved your humorous riff on Harold Robbins re your mother’s closet, and it’s always wonderful to hear the immensely talented Shehanne mentioned.

      The excellent Joy Fielding is definitely quite prolific, meaning there’s a lot to read of hers. ๐Ÿ™‚ As I’ve mentioned, I’ve gotten to three of her novels after you recommended her; my local library has at least 15 others on its shelves. Under “F,” for fine fiction. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  6. Hi Dave,

    Locked bookshops and locked libraries were two of the worst aspect of lockdowns* – but did send me back to classics on our own shelves – Dickens, of course, Wilkie Collins, including some of his weirder books, like The Two Destinies, complete with six dancing cats.
    . Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters was richly enjoyable – had been great TV over 20 years ago, but I didn’t get on with some of her other books.
    Online, I started reading the fine Louis Golding,
    Magnolia Street , then various Doomington.
    More TBR. .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Esther! Yes, not being able to go to bookstores and libraries during the lockdowns was something very missed. But it sounds like you had plenty of reading fare at home — including some offbeat Wilkie Collins. Six dancing cats — wow! Collins at his best (“The Woman in White,” “The Moonstone,” “Armadale,” “No Name”) is riveting. And Elizabeth Gaskell can be very interesting reading, too.

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  7. Hi Dave, I don’t generally ever read all the works by a particular author. I tend to read authors most famous works and leave it at that. I have, however, gone back and filled in the blanks with children’s books that weren’t in my local library when I was a child. I bought, and read the missing books and reread the books I previously read, for the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis and all the Iva Ebbotson books which I loved so much. I also read all the Anne Shirley books as well as the Emily books.

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  8. Okay, you caught me. I’m terrible about reading an author’s complete works!! ๐Ÿ˜ฆ It’s just that there’s so much to read out there hahaha! I’d say the best example I can come up with is Kristin Hannah. I really loved “the Nightingale” and “the Four Winds,” so I went back to read some of her earlier works. I was never disappointed, not even in one! While I have yet to read them all, I would highly recommend any that I have gotten my hands on.

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    • Thank you, M.B.! It’s hard to find time to read everything by our favorite authors. ๐Ÿ™‚ Kristin Hannah is definitely on my to-read list. I’ve done what you did with that author a number of times with other authors — reading some of their novels, and then going back to their earlier ones.

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  9. I tried — really tried — to read _Moby Dick_ in my late 20s. Got on a kick of reading all the stuff they tried to make you read in college, now that I didn’t _have_ to read them. Got through most of Sinclair Lewis; so depressing I didn’t realize _Babbitt_ was a comedic work.
    Moby, though. Oh, Moby. From hell’s heart I took a stab at it, with my last breath I got about a third of the way through. My managing editor and I were talking about it and he sort of nodded and said, “Herm needed an editor, didn’t he.”
    Much later I stumbled across the old joke about the college lit exam that demanded: “Explain the significance of the sea in Melville’s _Moby Dick_.”
    And amid all the blue books filled with poetic and prosaic waxing about the all-encompassing medium that supports and nurtures and conveys and also pitilessly destroys, one student wrote, in full: “Where the hell else was Melville going to put a whale?”

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    • Thank you, Don! Where else indeed? ๐Ÿ˜‚ “Moby-Dick” is indeed not the easiest novel to read. I liked it better when I reread it in middle age than when I first read it as a young adult. The extensive details about whales can “weigh” the book down, and “Moby-Dick” could be shorter, but I do love the characters, the plot line, the amazing prose, the symbolism, and, in the early part of the novel, the humor.

      Greatly enjoyed your comment. ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • Yeah, Dave … I wonder what my reading experience would be like if I attempted _Moby Dick_ again, now that I am, um, no longer in my 20s and have some different perspectives …
        Friggzample, I started _Pickwick Papers_ in high school, got far enough in to write a credible paper on Dickens’s use of humor, and finally finished the book at age 47. And it seemed a very different book to 47-year-old me than it did to 17-year-old me.

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        • Wow, Don — that was quite a “Pickwick Papers” reading span you had! Almost as long as Dickens’ writing career. ๐Ÿ™‚ And, yes, reading a novel when older and having many more life experiences can be a very different thing.

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  10. In answer to your question, Dave, I have realised that I used to stick more to already known writers, but in the meantime I am trying to find books, which help me to learn more about a certain subject such as in this case, a country, continent or colonialisation like “Paradise” by Abdulrazak Gurnah,which I am reading at the moment, together with watching documentary films or other historical documents.
    Thank you very much for having made me think! I also marked down Mardi by Hermann Melville:)

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    • Thank you, Martina! Sounds like you have an excellent current reading plan! Great to take a thematic subject approach that also includes non-book material.

      Although “Mardi” is interesting, the more I read it (I’m now about halfway through) the more I would not recommend it super-enthusiastically. Melville definitely wrote several better novels. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • Thank you, Shaharee! Interestingly put! I’m a fan of many 19th-century novels (as well as 20th- and 21st-century ones), but those from the 1800s are of course often quite different in their prose style, cultural norms, etc.

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  11. I also started re-reading Wharton. In fact, pre-halloween, I began with Shirley Jackson’s books. Then down a rabbit hole with short stories of the creepy variety by Wharton, Du Maurier, Joyce Carol Oates etc. Was surprised to find that Susan Hill wrote a 2nd book about Rebecca DeWinter, aptly titled Mrs. DeWinter. And then there is a musical about her. Geez. Btw, I must say I’m sleeping much better after the results of the mid terms. In fact, this is an interesting book about how all of us democracy loving people may have been affected on a deeper subconscious level than we even realized: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2226725.The_Third_Reich_of_Dreams
    Great theme post Dave. Thanks Susi.

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    • Thank you, Susi! Definitely some parallels between much of today’s Republican Party and Nazi Germany in the 1930s (with somewhat less violence from the GOP). Last week’s midterm results were indeed mostly a relief.

      And it sounds like you’ve done some amazing recent reading! Edith Wharton at her best is terrific, and Shirley Jackson’s novels “The Haunting of Hill House” and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” are quite memorable.

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  12. Another great post, Dave!
    I had a boomerang back to M.C. Beatonโ€™s Agatha Raisin series in its last couple of years. Iโ€™d raced through the full set finding it a cute, light, enjoyable escape; then I had to wait for new titles to be available. So tough! I think itโ€™s especially hard when itโ€™s a series with the same core characters, settings, etc – for me, I lose some of the details in the interim.
    Funny you mentioned Casual Vacancy. Iโ€™ve had that in my shelf for years after a false start. Keep telling myself I should give it another tryโ€ฆmaybe in 2023. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • Thank you, Donna! Interesting to hear your experience with M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series! Yes, returning to a series after an interval can leave a reader a bit lost for a while.

      “The Casual Vacancy” is indeed somewhat less “readable” than J.K. Rowling’s wonderful “Harry Potter” books and her terrific current crime series, but I found it worth the time. Kind of grew on me as I went along. “The Casual Vacancy” is certainly a serious novel with very little humor.

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    • Went through much the same with another MC Beaton series– the Hamish Macbeth novels. Literally read dozens, and originally was intent to wait on the latest. But by the last few I consumed, Beaton seemed to have lost interest in her Scottish detective, and didn’t have her heart in her work. So there’s at least one I never read–but I’m not interested enough to seek it out, even now,some years after my Beaton Binge.

      Had fun for a few months with the series though, for which I am grateful.

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    • Thank you, Mary Jo! Exploring more John Steinbeck works is a terrific idea! I’ve read a number of his lesser-known novels — “The Moon Is Down,” “Sweet Thursday,” “The Wayward Bus,” etc. — and, while they’re not at “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden” level, they’re pretty good.

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      • Saw a funny item in the Guardian about Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” manuscript: seems for years scholars had been mystified and troubled by Slut! written in red pencil on its last page– likely in his wife’s hand.

        At some point, someone remembered that the Steinbecks had traveled to Sweden, right around the time he had completed TGOW, and that the word in Swedish, meant ‘finished, the end, done’ in that language. Mystery solved!

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  13. Dave – you continue to inspire me with your voracious reading. The author that comes to mind for me, other than J.R.R. Tolkien, was Leon Uris. I was 18 when I first read Battle Cry and then went on to Exodus, Mila 18, and Armageddon. I started Trinity and had to stop because of the issues involving the potato famine. It was so real to me that I felt that I was a participant in the book. Which is why I choose my fiction carefully. I usually take time to read the historical events before embarking on fiction. As you know I have been immersed in War and Peace this year. While I could have finished the reading within a shorter time period, the duration of a year allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the events and social milieu. Perhaps this is the beginning of my Leo Tolstoy reading.

    The quote that I leave is from Armageddon:

    The moment of decision is the loneliest in human life. It must be come upon in stillness and darkness and brooding thoughts and doubts torn out from the deep reaches of the soul.โ€ Leon Uris

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  14. I binged on Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in the 70s while in college. Of course, he binged on writing in that general period as well. I stopped before reading Slapstick (because I was still in college and it was only available in hardcover). I picked that up in the 90s and immediately fell back in love with him. I think I’ve read everything since.

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