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Dave Astor

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The Cupid-Like Pleasure of Canon Love

Posted: 02/14/2012 4:48 pm

Valentine's Day is all about love -- and one thing I love is a great novel that inspires me to read the author's other books.

Something I hate? You'll have to look near the end of this post for that!

I recently finished my first Margaret Drabble book, The Sea Lady, and was very impressed. So I clicked on that author's bibliography, asked it to "make my day," and it did -- by listing 16 other Drabble novels to eventually enjoy! I'm sure I'll like at least some of them as much as The Sea Lady, a poignant 2006 book about a flamboyant woman and quiet man who meet decades after having a complicated relationship as kids and young adults.

Naturally, I thought about other times a top-notch novel started me on a canon-esque binge to read the author's other works, and what the resulting experience was like.

For instance, I loved Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood (who shares Drabble's first name and birth year), and followed that novel with many other Atwood titles. It was a very happy few months of 2011 reading, made happier by liking some of her novels -- including The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, and The Blind Assassin -- even more than the excellent Cat's Eye.

(Actually, Cat's Eye was my second Atwood novel. I greatly admired The Handmaid's Tale a quarter-century ago, but inexplicably didn't try another of her books until last year.)

Speaking of acclaimed Canadian authors, I first read L.M. Montgomery in the form of the superb The Blue Castle (what a love story!). Then came Anne of Green Gables (almost as good a book), various Anne sequels (okay), and the semi-autobiographical Emily trilogy (great).

Barbara Kingsolver? I started with her magnificent The Poisonwood Bible, then enjoyed the nearly as amazing Prodigal Summer, then backtracked to three likable earlier novels (The Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, Pigs in Heaven), and then read my third-favorite Kingsolver book: The Lacuna.

I don't want to ramble on too long, so here are thumbnails for five other author canons:

-- The Grapes of Wrath was my first John Steinbeck book, and nothing could top it among his other wonderful novels. But East of Eden was a very respectable second.

-- Germinal got me hooked on Emile Zola when I initially read him. It remains my favorite of his, though titles such as Ladies' Delight and The Beast in Man are strong runners-up.

-- The Count of Monte Cristo is how I first encountered Alexandre Dumas. It outshines his other novels (no Chateau d'Ifs, ands, or buts!), even though many other Dumas books are compelling.

-- I "met" Cormac McCarthy on The Road, which was absorbing but not even in his top five after I subsequently read his previous novels. My favorites are his mid-career Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses.

-- The engrossing Ivanhoe came first for me when reading Sir Walter Scott, but I ended up preferring Scott novels such as Quentin Durward and The Heart of Midlothian. (Glad I was able to mention the word "heart" when writing on Valentine's Day!)

Sometimes, an author's other books don't even come close to the first title one tries. For instance, Charlotte Bronte's Shirley and Villette are good but her Jane Eyre -- one of literature's great love stories -- is much better.

The hate (actually, more sadness than hate) mentioned in this post's second paragraph is the emotion one feels after finishing a beloved author's canon. "That's all there is; there isn't any more," sayeth Madeline's narrator.

Yet if novelists you admire are still alive, new titles may arrive in the future. And if the writers are past protagonists on Earth, there's always re-reading!

One more point about author canons: I've often (though not always) found that the best novels are written somewhere in mid-career. That's because an author has gained writing experience and life experience, but is usually not yet repeating themselves in some ways.

Do you agree or disagree with this mid-career-peak thesis? And when you love the first book you read by an author, do other novels by that writer live up to your expectations?