Good and bad reading phases

I am in the midst of a bad reading phase right now, which happens from time-to-time. What I mean by a bad reading phase is either (a) just not doing any reading, even though I have plenty to read; or (b) not reading anything that seems to hold my interest. In this case, it’s the former. I am about one-third of the way through Rob Sawyer’s Hybrids, which so far is a great book, but which I can’t seem to bring myself to pick up. This has lasted for well over a week.

Looking back through my reading list for the last 11 years, I can identify a few of these phases. One thing that is remarkable about keeping a list is that I can see a book on the list, and very often remember circumstances surrounding my reading the book: where I was reading it, what was happening in my life at the time, even what the weather was like. The bad reading phases never last too long (the longest was a few months), just as the good reading phases never last too long either. In thinking about this present “bad” phase, I tried to think about the best “reading” phase I can remember over the course of the last 11 years (since I have been keeping my list) and there is one time that definitely stands out in my mind as one in which (a) every book I read was terrific and (b) I had plenty to read; I just couldn’t get enough.

The streak lasted for 11 books; it began on September 19, 1997 and ended on November 3, 1997. I don’t have my diaries in front of me at the moment, so I don’t recall the exact circumstances, but Tawnya had gotten me a book I told her that I wanted (perhaps for my birthday earlier that year). The book was David G. Hartwell’s Age of Wonder. On the evening of September 18, having finished Greg Benford’s Foundation’s Fear the day before, I began reading Age of Wonders. I recall at some point, being sick with a cold or the flu while I read it, but I also remember how much I enjoyed it. I was supposed to be staying in bed, getting rest, but instead, I was sneaking in reading whenever I could get the chance. I even remember the layout of the bedroom at that particular time, and thinking about the book reminds me of that first small apartment in Studio City. Up until then, my science fiction reading had been somewhat limited to those authors with whom I was very familiar: Isaac Asimov, a little Heinlein, some William Gibson, Piers Anthony, James Morrow, Harlan Ellison and a few others. I’d always liked science fiction but I hadn’t really branched out. Reading Ages of Wonders, however, I became aware, through Hartwell’s eyes, of many other books considered to be “classics” and these titles fascinated me.

When I felt a little better, I headed over to The Iliad Bookshop in order to pick up as many of these “classics” as I could find. I hadn’t even finished reading Age of Wonders yet; I needed to get these other books. A few days later, I did finish Age of Wonders and there began the most remarkable reading phase that I can remember.

I started with Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination which was different from anything I’d ever read before. Next came Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon which turned the idea of instantaneous matter transmission on its side. Then back to Bester for The Demolished Man. (I later learned that Bester wrote some superb short stories and his “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To” is on my list of all-time favorites.) I read The Demolished Man in a single day.

I didn’t think I could keep reading such amazing books, but I did. I read Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg. That book became one of only a handful of books to get 5-stars on my rating scale (of 0-5 stars). It was remarkable; a book that I would not hesitate to read again. David Selig stuck in my memory so much, that three years later, when I was reading Gregory Benford’s Timescape and a character named David Selig appeared, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the same David Selig; so I sent Benford an email and he replied that indeed it was the same character, a tribute to that book.

I followed that up with Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint which to this day I enjoyed more than any other Philip K. Dick book that I’ve read. Next was Robert Heinlein’s massive future history, The Past Through Tomorrow. At over 300,000 words, it was one of the longest books I’d read at that point, and it was classic Heinlein. Reading this book, I actually felt as though I’d been transported back to the 1940s, reading the stories as they appeared in ASTOUNDING. Magnificent!

Of the last four books in the amazing phase, two of them earned 5-stars on my rating system. The first was the next book that I read, which was Barry N. Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo. I’d read Malzberg before, specifically a few of his short stories, as well as Herovit’s World But Beyond Apollo cemented Malzberg as one of my favorite all-time writers. Story, style and the characters all blended for an amazing read. I followed that up with another Malzberg book, Galaxies, the expanded version of his story, “A Galaxy Called Rome”. It took me only a day to gobble up that book. Next was Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. “The Veldt” became one of the only stories I ever read that gave me chills. (Scary stories usually do not affect me in this way; the one other exception that I can think of is Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”.) And “The Rocket Man” is probably the best, or at least tied for the best science fiction story I have ever read. It is the perfect short story, in terms of form and execution and if you’ve never read it, you don’t know what you are missing.

I wrapped up this remarkable phase of reading with a book that I was skeptical about to begin with, but one which easily earned itself a 5-star rating: Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. Going in I figured it was just another book about space wars. Coming out, I realized it was a book about war and the horrors of war, and the craziness of war and the strain it places on those who do the fighting. The ending of the book brought me to tears–literally. And perhaps those tears were symbolic of the fact that such a good reading streak was over, and I knew that it would be a long, long time before another phase like this came around again.

What made this reading phase so remarkable was the quality of the writing and story-telling, but also the sense of wonder. It would be impossible to go back to any of these books, reread them, and come away with the same awe that I had reading them the first time around, and in a way that is sad. I have to hope that there are more amazing books out there that I have not yet read. I have had other good streaks in the years since, but none has come close to the quality, the wonder, and the sheer enchantment of that streak that lasted for two months back in the fall of 1997.

There is a saying among science fiction fandom that the Golden Age of science fiction is thirteen. Perhaps I’m a late-bloomer, but for me, the Golden Age of science fiction was 25.