Picking up a book by an author you’ve never encountered before can be a bit daunting. Perhaps, like me, you’ve heard people praise particular authors for a long time and have wanted to give their writing a try, but simply never known quite where to start. For me, a few that keep coming to mind, bringing with them a twinge of guilt each time, are Haruki Marukami, Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike.
Oates published her first novel at age 26 and has written around 50 of them since; she’s also a prolific short story writer and essayist, such that her total output numbers some 70-plus volumes. Yet the only piece I’ve ever read by her is a 1966 short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, which was assigned reading for my freshman seminar at college. Where in the world should I start with her novels?!
Likewise, Updike is a huge figure in twentieth-century American literature – with, again, about 70 books to his credit, including not just novels but also short stories, poetry, autobiography, and literary criticism – but I’ve barely read a word he wrote.
Rather than shrugging my shoulders in disillusioned frustration and deciding not to try these intimidating authors after all, I’m going to try to put a reasoned plan in place. As I see it, there are five strategies I could take:
- Start with their first book (this is what Laura of Reading in Bed is doing this year, to decide whose complete works to read)
- Start with their most high-profile book – the one that won a major prize, or was on the bestseller list for weeks, or became a ubiquitous book club selection
- Start with their latest book
- Start with their most unconventional work
- Start with whatever comes to hand first (public library holdings might be the limitation)
So, which strategy do you recommend for the three authors I mentioned above? I’ll plan to try all of them this year. Which of their books should I be sure not to miss?
(Adapted from a longer article I wrote for Bookkaholic in 2013 – and still I haven’t tried Oates or Updike!)