The gaps in my shelves

Well, they’re not GAPS. My shelves are too stuffed to have actual gaps in them. If one appears it’s quickly reabsorbed and things arise to fill it, to take up its place – a bookshelf of a true bibliophile abhors a vacuum, after all.

But the books I never liked. The books I tried but could not finish. The books that bugged me. The books that were evicted from my shelves, or never took up residence there at all. Those books. The books missing from people’s shelves tell just as much of a story as those who jostle one another for space there.

I suppose my first pick would be one of the most polarizing piece of literary work I’ve ever encountered – Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas the Unbeliever books, which people passionately loathe or equally passionately love and defend – they don’t seem to leave much room for middle ground. And in one sense that is very good indeed because any book that sparks such an emotional response in its readers is by definition, I suppose, a winner of sorts.

But dear GOD I am in the ”loathe it” camp. I don’t even remember if I ever finished the complete series – much of the detail of this thing is mercifully wiped from my memory, given that what remains is a visceral recoil of epic proportions. What I DO remember is wanting to take the whiny protagonist and beating his head HARD against a brick wall. Yes, you’re a leper. I get it. Life sucks. Do I have to sit there and watch it? If I want suckage I can probably turn to my own niggling real life problems and deal with those and that will give me plenty to go on – I simply don’t have the time, the mental energy, or the spoons to deal with Thomas’s own complaints and issues. Dude. Believe things or don’t believe them. I SO seriously DO NOT CARE.

I am told that the author wrote other books which are a lot less annoying. The tragedy is that I see that name on a book cover and I run a mile in the other direction. His other books might be nonpareils the missing of which is one of the great losses of my life – but I will never know because the Thomas books gave me such a wary dread of anything else he might have produced that I will never crack open another book of his again.

There was a time – early on in my career – when I was doing a group signing at a bookstore and I woke up with a slow horror that the person I had been placed next to was this very writer – I watched a copy of his newest novel propped up on the table before him, between the two of us, and it was all I could do not to make the sign of the evil eye at it. I contemplated shaking him by the shoulders and demanding wildly to know why he thought that creating Thomas Covenant would be a good idea – but I was a very young writer and a complete nobody and he already had a name and a reputation in the business and I never even uttered two words to him, never mind asked such questions, let alone accompanied by the potentially physical aspects of it. So I guess I will never know. And there are NO Donaldson books on my shelf. AT ALL.

There are very few Heinleins. Two, in fact, I think, I total. I don’t know – I read my first Heinlein novel, perhaps, when I was too young to understand it completely, and THAT made me slide off it – and then I grew up sufficiently to understand what I had been missing, and THAT made me slide off it too – I just never really clicked with the Heinlein ideas at all. I found his style to be something that got in the way of the story, too, although I would be hard pressed to explain exactly why – just something that rubbed me the wrong way. I read just enough to come to know that my acquaintance with this particular giant of the Golden Age would be superficial, and brief. And no, I do not collect him.

Orson Scott Cart actually started out fairly auspiciously. I have a number of his books, some of which I have actually really liked – “Songmaster” I believe to be a very good piece of work indeed, and I enjoyed, in my time, “Ender’s game” inasmuch as I thought it was an incredible STORY (although I did take issue with some of its ideas…) But the Ender books after the first went swiftly downhill, for me, and I found “Xenocide” almost unreadable. “Ships of Earth” I found didactic and platitudinous. The Alvin books held a great deal of interest – but even there he managed to lose me pretty comprehensively. It’s come to this – I can’t read Orson Scott Card any more. It is only partly due to the fact that I am uncomfortably aware of how far apart our worldviews are, although that’s  definitely in the mix – but it isn’t the whole reason, the only reason. I can’t seem to muster the patience and the understanding any more for his particular brand of (more or less) thinly veiled proselytizing zeal and the occasionally ham-handed heaviness of shoving his ideas at me. Somewhere along the line – I suppose this is one of those “when good writers go bad” stories – he simply lost me. I picked up a hardcover of one of his later novels in a bookstore and flipped through it, read the back blurb, examined it for clues… and then put it back down again. There is nothing there that interests me any more.

An acclaimed semi-genre, at least, book which was recently made into a movie which (by all accounts, I haven’t seen it) is just as much of a confused if beautifully presented mess as the original book is “Cloud Atlas”. I read it when it first came out, and really struggled to finish it. I thought it was too damn clever by half, and every time it began to hold me it would drop me right down again by preening at me, “look at me, reader-miss, ain’t I SMART!”, and dammit, I resented that. I am not stupid or unintelligent, and I resented the hell out of a book that made it a point to be “cleverer” than me. Life’s too short.

On a less genre level, one writer you won’t find on my shelves – except as a character in one of Matt Ruff’s amazing books – is Ayn Rand. I don’t argue with the blinkered. There is nothing that she can possibly “teach” me that I remotely wish to learn. So thanks, but no thanks.

I’ll be over here, reading Tolkien, or Le Guin, or Guy Gavriel Kay, or the latest Matt Ruff. The people who make my life the richer for their presence, rather than making me snippy, snide, sarcastic, or just plain mad.

There are no “holes” in my shelves. But there are absences. And they are all there for good reasons.

So then – what are the books that don’t live on YOUR shelves…?

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  1. 1. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I’m with you on the Thomas books. I didn’t get through book one, much less the rest. I have read some of his other books and enjoyed them though, and he is a wonderful person. I never got around to anything but the Alvin books with OSC. I enjoyed them, but now I can’t read anything by him without his worldview interfering with my enjoyment. I am the same with a lot of the older SF writers. I’ve read their stuff, or at least some of it, but it’s often more idea driven than character and that doesn’t appeal to me nearly as much and I no longer have time to waste on stuff I don’t like that much. I know I have other huge gaps, but am not remembering them now. BTW, got your message. I’m still not sure what the fox says though. Probably something like, FEED ME!!! BTW, I murdered no napkins at my session.

  2. 2. Wolf Lahti

    Not on my shelf? Two words:

    Robert Jordan

    When I picked up the first book in the Wheel of Time series, I think I made it as far a halfway through the second page before I encountered one too many of those writerly gaffs that tell me this author doesn’t really understand How Words Work. I immediately put it aside with no intention of ever picking it up again.

    This quick judgement has since been validated by numerous people whose opinions I value and trust, though I know there are those who love his work.

    There are worse writers, certainly, and I could name a few, but SF&F is a small, clannish community, and you never know who you may run into – or end up sitting next to at a signing.

    As someone wisely said, “There are too many good books out there to read for me to waste time on bad or mediocre ones.”

  3. 3. Alma Alexander

    @Diana – he might well be a wonderful person but I never met him personally before I encountered THomas and one just doesn’t start a conversation with a (moderately famous authorial) stranger with teh phrase, “Hi, I SO didn’t like your books…” is there a way around this? Etiquette?…

    @Wolf – re Jordan – I got the first WoT book to review back when I was doing reviews for the local paper in Cape Town. I moderately ENJOYED it – yes, it was derivative and there were a number of eye rolls involved but eh. It was a reasonably okay epic fantasy and I could live with that. Then I read #2 and it didn’t seem to go anywhere much but I chalked it up to BooTwoItis (many second books in trilogies suffer this fate – htey’re bridges between a gloriosu beginning and a wonderful finale and boy does that show…) and hten – then – I picked up #3. And realised that not only was not the end, it was not even the beginning of the end, it was barely the end of teh beginning. I declared that life was too short for this and dropped the series flat. Never read another book in it. Sorry. There a hundred other books out there who are waiting for me to get around to them and I barely have time for – and Jordan just became a burden, and when a thing becomes a burden it is with joythat you lay it down.

    I have to admit that I have never actually READ “Game of Thtones”, although I have friends who love it dearly – but is that franchise starting to suffer a bit of a Jordanesque burden? I think Martin is a more competent actual storyteller than Jordan was (Jordan tended to get tangled up with minutiae until you wante to scream or dropped plot thresds for entire books because he was too busy chasing his tail in another direction altogether) but it’s HARD to keep following a series – espeically a complicated one like GoT – over decades of time. You essentially probably have to re0read the whole opus when the new book in the series comes out, just to catch up again – and I”m sure people do, with pleasure, but again, there are so many NEW books out there…


  1. Life, like a river - Alma Alexander: Duchess of Fantasy

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.



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