Tuesday, December 21, 2010

on the shoulders of giants

renowned author with early masterpiece

Since Christmas is a few days away and I asked for most of the newer books I want as gifts (as well as a Kindle but I will save that existential crisis for another post); when I needed something new to read last week, I turned to the books already on my shelf where I keep a stash of backlist titles by some of my favorite authors.

Is anything more pleasurable than discovering an author you love so much that you feel compelled to read everything they’ve ever written? This is especially wonderful when it is a) someone prolific and b) someone living who will probably write yet more books. It can be oddly melancholy to read the backlist of a writer who is dead. I first discovered Truman Capote via the short story collection that included Breakfast at Tiffany’s and I have since read everything he’s ever written—with the exception of the masterpiece for which he is perhaps best known, In Cold Blood. It still sits on my shelf untouched in part because I know that once I do read it that will be it; I will have read all the Capote there is to read. I’ve even read Summer Crossing, a novel which was reportedly found in the trash behind his apartment building after his death and is thought to be an earlier work but wasn’t published until 2006.

I’m happy to report that this is not the case with the writer with whom I am currently on a backlist adventure, Margaret Atwood. She is not only still living and writing but (as you know if you’ve read her most recent work) at the top of her game. I started with The Year of the Flood when it came out and have since read a half dozen more of her books. Currently I’m reading Life Before Man which besides being a great read is making me feel really good about being an unmarried.
There is something satisfying about having read an author’s entire canon but I also think it can be reassuring to look back on the earlier work of someone whose current work sees so perfect as to be untouchable. I discovered Ian McEwan when I read Atonement which is—according to many—his reigning masterpiece and certainly his most well-known novel. I fell so in love that I went back and read everything all the way back to First Love, Last Rites. It’s fascinating to see the progression of an author’s work over several decades. It’s also encouraging to know, in this era when an author’s debut work can seem so make-or-break, that McEwan didn’t start off writing Atonement. His early work is brilliant in its way but you can feel the effort a little more; the seams are a bit more visible. (A side note on the early work of Ian McEwan: do not read before bed. Trust.)   

I saw Ian McEwan in the hallway of Random House once. I froze and almost dropped the stack of pages I was carrying and then hurried off in the other direction before I could embarrass myself. My heart was pounding. I was like a fourteen year-old who’d just discovered Justin Bieber standing next to her locker.   

Do the masters inspire you, intimidate you or both?   


  1. joan didion makes me afraid to write. i can only read her stuff if i know i'm not going to be trying my own in any near future.

  2. I envy you early Margaret Atwood. When she came to read here a couple of years ago, I asked her to sign my first Atwood purchase: a 1972 used paperback copy of Surfacing I bought in the late seventies. I rarely ask for signatures but there's something about seeing "For Mary, Best Wishes, Margaret Atwood" that makes me want to start writing. Bodily Harm is another great one.

    I only discovered McEwan a couple of years ago. I've worked my way back to Enduring Love and Black Dogs and am still going. I like his earlier stuff better, I think, overall. Though Saturday was incredible.

    Ondaatje and Amy Bloom and Franzen intimidate me but once I start learning from the book, I'm ready to go.

    Nice blog-- glad you linked it at Betsy's!