Came across a comic by Lynda Barry called The 20 Stages of Reading. You’ve seen it already; it’s going the rounds around Internet. It starts as a general thing, and then becomes a comment about things I haven’t ran into, because I don’t do reading circles.
So here are my alternative 20 stages of reading fiction. And since as a mathematician I have the power to round things, I round this 20 to 21.
- THE FIRST BOOK READ TO YOU. And it feels like magic, probably — but you don’t remember it and neither do I, so I might be wrong.
- THE FIRST BOOK YOU READ. And this time it is magic — but most likely you don’t remember this either. All there is, is your mom telling you that you learned to read before school started.
- THE FIRST BOOK WHERE YOU SAW THE CLEVER. Not because it was badly hidden, but because some books are written with the clever showing. Maybe there was a machine that removed things from reality, and all the things it removed were things you had never heard of and — oh, Lem, you clever bastard. And then you think, “Do all books have this cleverness, except hidden better? Is that what has been amusing me all this time?”
- THE FIRST BOOK YOU READ WRONG. Maybe the library van goes around today, so you decide to rush the book. Maybe you’re angry and can’t concentrate and just want to throw the book at walls. Sooner or later you do a book wrong, and learn to not do that again because books are lovers.
- THE FIRST AGE-INAPPROPRIATE ONE. So you sneak out a copy of Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, or your mom gives you Clive Cussler’s Dragon because you’re moaning about having nothing to read — and you are excited, faintly horrified, and fairly certain you’re missing something. (“What? You can’t end a James Bond novel with Bond being an amnesiac fisherman in Japan! Not that I’ve read or seen anything else, but… can you?”)
- THE FIRST STINKER. The sentences were choppy; there were mistakes in grammar; the action dove in and out of plot holes and the hero was an irritating idiot. Plus ecch, the lessons. A book descends and you rise, and bam! (Also: stinkers have a much bigger chance of having interesting sex scenes in them than non-stinkers. Nothing so bad it don’t have something good in it; I kept a stinker about blood diamonds around for years in the fetal years of the Internet because it had a girl and a penile snake.)
- THE FIRST FACEHUGGER. You come home from school, open the book you got from the library on the way, and wham! flip! slam! flip! flip — and it’s well past midnight until the book lets you go, because the book is stronger and sweeter than what you are used to. (It’s a sad fact that as you grow up finding books like this becomes more difficult. Sometime in my early university years I lost half of a Friday to World According to Garp: came home, opened new book, blam! midnight.)
- THE FIRST ONE-SITTER. You sit down or plop down on the bed, open a new book, and it’s a slim one and you’ve arranged your life to have time for reading… and you don’t sit up or rise up until the book’s done. And you feel disturbed and heroic when you close the book. (If it’s a book of any real length, excuse the toilet breaks.)
- THE FIRST BLIND LUNGE. “Hey, I found this book in the library. What’s it about? Um, I have no idea, but I liked the title…” (Doesn’t count if you read the back cover and browsed inside. That’s just normal finding books, pre-Net.)
- THE FIRST ECHO. There’s the book where you whisper “I’ve seen this done before… and I’ve seen this done better.” For some authors it has been done better in the earlier books of the same author. (And then there’s the one, a superlative example or a subversion, where the old thing finally comes together and makes sense.)
- THE FIRST REFERENCE. “Oh my god, this is a reference to that other book I read. Are they allowed to do that?” Better still, when you realize this book is a reply to that other one.
- THE FIRST SOUGHT-OUT AUTHOR. Sooner or later you tire of the references to H. P. Lovecraft or Poe, and decide to find what they are that so many refer to them. Pretty often you come to them too early; they’re so old that you yourself need to be older to have the requisite patience for them.
- SEEING THE FORM. “Right, this guy is the hero and isn’t going to die. We didn’t see the body so he’s alive. Uh oh, mentor, you’re going to die. I wonder if they’re going to end up together, I lied.” This makes a lot of books difficult to enjoy, but then comes the one which breaks the form, and it’s better because you know what it is doing.
- THE FIRST ALL-DONE. You’re read all the author has written. This is easy for some authors; less easy with Enid Blyton or Stephen King. Then you want more and… oh no, they’re dead. Or, oh no, there’s a wait. (I hit this with The Path of Daggers, book 8/14 of the Wheel of Time, in 1999 or 2000. Because I lost momentum, and because it was book 8 of some very huge books, I’ve yet to finish the Wheel of Time — but I’ve bought all but one or two of the paperbacks, preparing for when I feel the urge to let the Dragon ride on the wings of time.)
- THE FIRST BOOK IN THE HEADLINES. Sooner or later you see an author interviewed, a book advertised, and decide to pick it up. Usually this is a disappointment. (Then again, sometimes not — I have the unfortunate tendency to dislike whatever’s popular, and then after years of sniffling have a look and fall in love: with Harry Potter after the fifth book was out; with Hunger Games when the movie was coming. Still haven’t read more than the first Hunger Games book; but as for Harry Potter, I’ve even written fan fiction of it — the most succinct of which is this: “HARRY POTTER AND THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. / “We have a new potions teacher, class.” / “It rubs the lotion on its skin.” — and no more needs to be said of that.)
- THE FIRST FAVORITE AUTHOR. Your favorite author is one whose books you buy without asking what they are about; whose books you read without turning to the back cover because it always spoils and you don’t want to spoil these ones. (To the person who wrote the back cover for David Eddings’s Regina’s Song: I’m going to hunt you down and kill you, one day, when I find the time.)
- THE FIRST TWICE BOUGHT BOOK. It can be either “Oh, I gave my old copy away” or “Oh, I can’t be arsed to look for it” — but sooner or later you buy a second copy of a book. It feels a little bit extravagant, a little bit like pampering yourself… and it feels good. (Buying the same book in a different language doesn’t count. I have the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit in at least four. That’s just normal non-obsessive fandom, right? Right?)
- THE FIRST WHERE YOU KNOW THE AUTHOR. Each book has an author, but in the beginning you know only the backflap blurbs, if even that. You’re shocked to notice that the author was a different gender than what you thought; you’re shocked to see what they look like. Then, sooner or later, you’ve seen interviews or read blogs (John Scalzi, Charles Stross, Patrick Rothfuss), and you have an idea of the person who wrote this thing; and it changes your reading. Maybe you see their politics, or religion, or personal interests in the book; and it is changed, for better or for worse.
- THE FIRST WHERE THE AUTHOR KILLS THE BOOK. Okay, so now you know the author is a homophobe or loves the use of guns too much. That changes things — you can’t say maybe that was the characters speaking, or just an accident that that happened to be the only solution available. No, the author made the world the way it was, made it the way he sees the real one — and ecch, you don’t want to go into that world anymore. (Orson fucking Scott fucking Card.)
- THE FIRST FANFIC. Maybe you never write it down; but you disagree with the author, or think she stopped too soon, or wonder what could have been — and that’s fan fiction, the love which dares to say the author’s doing something interesting.
- YOUR FIRST OWN STORY. Maybe you just read a horribly bad novel. Or one that didn’t address a question that you thought up. Or you just looked at a book and said, “I can string words together too, can’t I?” — and so the circle starts turning back towards the beginning, with nothing more than a few million words of crap and some random tosses of publishing dice in the way.
(Also, Barry’s stages? I have experience of 1, possibly 2, 3–8, 10 maybe, and I guess 20. Like I said, she’s giving a comment about a spat I haven’t gotten into.)