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BooksJanuary 28, 2020

The particular joy of barrelling into a bountiful back-catalogue

Image: Westend61, via Getty
Image: Westend61, via Getty

Scarlett Cayford stumbles, ravenous, into a glorious new world. 

I go through phases with my reading, like any bibliophile. Sometimes my life can barely keep pace with my reading, and I find myself wedging pages of books into my calendar wherever I can: in waiting rooms and on bus seats and in the first five minutes of clarity when I wake up. Then sometimes I barely crack a cover for a week. There’s no pattern to it, though if I examined it I’m sure I’d find that the latter periods fall mainly when I’ve become hooked on some multi-season Netflix epic, or ensnared in a Caroline Calloway drama, or when I’m unhappy and distracted and low. 

I’m always at my best when I’m ploughing at pace through books. I have more energy, I have more to contribute to conversations, I’m absolutely fizzing with recommendations. When I’m reading a lot, my reading diversifies (like now, when I’m reading, almost chapter for chapter, through Catch 22, footballer Peter Crouch’s autobiography and a second go-round of The Secret Commonwealth) and I’m sure I get more interesting. So it’s a state I try to prolong, by doing things like granting myself a more generous Kindle book-buying budget, and allowing myself to drop any books that aren’t capturing me by the 100th page (which may, alas, be the sad fate of Catch 22 once again). 

For me, a period of ravenous book consumption nearly always kicks off when I discover a new author. I race through the first novel, enraptured by plot and pace and place, and then when I reach the end, I quickly endeavour to recapture the magic. Sometimes, to my horror, the book turns out to have been authored by a first-timer, and while I then have to doff my hat to their virginal brilliance, it takes a while to find another work that works equal magic upon me. You can say all you want for the algorithm, and I set a lot of store by recommendations both robotic and human, but no two authors are the same, and I rarely find that “Oh you loved this? Then you’re going to adore this” results in anything other than mild disappointment. There is no such thing as a perfectly matched set of authors. 

But other times – other times, I read one perfect novel, sigh with disappointment as I set it down, and then find out (sometimes from the back pages of the same novel, sometimes through a Wikipedia article) that that particular author has been busy. Sometimes they have amassed some 30 years worth of busily bussing out books, somehow overlooked by me despite many hours in bookstores both digital and dusty, ready and waiting to step into the stead of the covers I just closed. Truly, there is no better feeling than discovering that a novelist you’re new to adoring has been recognised for their talent long before you found them, and has a brilliant, bountiful back-catalogue just waiting for you to explore. 

The best examples of that for me are Anne and Ann: Tyler and Patchett. I must have been around 16 when I was first bewitched by Patchett’s Bel Canto; I’ve cited the slight, Orange Prize-winning novel as one of my favourite books (along with The Secret History – I know, I’m so original – by Donna Tartt, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor and American Gods by Neil Gaiman) for as long as I can remember. I’ve reread it perhaps yearly since I first went through that shocking, beautiful depiction of Stockholm Syndrome – but for some reason, it took me a long time to investigate Patchett’s other works. Imagine my delight, rather too recently for me to comfortably confess to, upon discovering that novel was not the standalone work of an inefficient genius, but instead just one of no fewer than eight titles spanning a career of more than 30 years. Since then I’ve gone deep, surfacing only briefly in between Run, State of Wonder, Commonwealth and, most recently, The Dutch House. And now I wonder how I lived in a world where those words hadn’t filtered through my lacklustre consciousness. Naturally, a period like that results in writing of my own with a patchy Patchett-ness (which, sadly, one can never sustain). For my brief period of overconsumption, I see the world a bit like her (harsher, sadder, more laden with coincidence, braver). And, when I’ve come up for breath, I still have three books to go! 

Whilst in this period of mania, I made a mistake that led to a miracle: I briefly forgot Ann Patchett’s name, and accidentally downloaded and read a book by Anne Tyler. I didn’t notice my mistake until the end of the book, though I did stop to ponder, briefly, her impressive flexibility in tone – and then when I realised my error, I was left with another literary Anne with some 20 prize-winning novels to her name. 

It’s usually at about this point that I slide out of a period of over-reading and enter a brief dark spell of Grey’s Anatomy rewatching and addiction to internet long-reads about people with too much money (or people who scam their way into too much money, holla Anna Delvey) because the sheer bounty of Annethologies simply becomes too much. I become giddy with choice, and embark upon too many novels at once, and lose the plots. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. 

But I am always glad when I slide back into the universes of these blessed over-productive authors. How they manage to conceive of and create so many wonderful works might baffle and overwhelm me, but we owe a great deal to authors who just keep writing. It isn’t easy. Distraction is rife. For every Stephen King (at least 95 novels) there is an Anne Sewell, a J D Salinger, an Emily Bronte (obviously her early death is something we can forgive her for). 

My favourite authors who just fucking cannot stop writing (and are still alive so may yet produce a library to themselves, keyboard gods willing) include: Kate Atkinson (12, if you are just discovering her, I love you, and I hate you, there is so much perfection in your fictional future), Marian Keyes (12, and a new one due in February, which I already have on pre-order), Haruki Murakami (14, plus loads of great short stories), Meg Wolitzer (13, all genius), Daphne du Maurier, Jasper Fforde, Toni Morrison and Ann and Anne, of course. 

Often it’s the authors who occupy a single genre who seem to be able to multiply their works most successfully. R L Stine, best known for terrifying 10-year-olds with his cliff-hanging Goosebumps series, has written over 330 books. Barbara Cartland, who has become synonymous with paint-by-numbers romance, pumped out 720 books before she died, including 23 written in a single year. Enid Blyton, who favoured naming her young characters after pet names for genitals, wrote over 782 books for children (some of them somewhat racist, all of them far too excited about ginger beer and baked potatoes). If you’re a lover of crime fiction then you have to work pretty hard to fall in love with a master of the genre who hasn’t spun out a series of 10 or more, all featuring a hulking handsome detective with a past and a propensity to gamble with their future (Grisham, Patterson, Fleming, Christie, all the other ones). 

The world always gets very excited by a wonderful first-time novelist, particularly if they’re young and have TikTok (or similar), but I will always remain loyal to the novelists about whom there is nothing novel at all; on whom I can regularly rely for language I love. Finding a new hyper-productive novelist is a very particular joy. It’s like settling down on a winter’s evening on a warm couch surrounded by all your favourite snacks, and equally, very much suited to a long summer weekend spent reading in a deck chair. I’m always on the look out for more; please tell me yours.

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury, $33) is available from Unity Books. 

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