Why do we love to binge-read series?

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I have a relative who says he only reads dead authors, because then he knows how many of their books he has to look forward to and can pace himself accordingly. I’m the opposite. If I find an author I love I bulldoze my way through their work and don’t stop until there’s nothing left to do but wait for their next book (if they’re living) or accept that this is the end (if they’re dead). This is especially true if it’s a series.

The odd thing is I’m normally moderate to the point of dullness. I don’t get drunk or stay up all night gaming or run marathons. I don’t even drink coffee in the afternoon. Perhaps that’s why I like to give into this one impulse, to feel that I have abandoned all restraint and succumbed to gluttony. Besides, books are good for you, right? It’s the one acceptable addiction. But just what is the appeal?

You know what you’re getting

Perhaps it goes back to childhood, fairytales and nursery rhymes. Wanting to hear a version of the same story over and over again. (I remember the Famous Five books I used to get from the library always had 184 pages, which I found somehow satisfying.) Isn’t there something soothing about habit and ritual? The poet Don Paterson suggests that watching TV series has replaced religion, that the repetition has a liturgical quality to it. He has written about it in his eponymous tribute to medical drama House (he even manages to find a rhyme for Vicodin). I feel the same about series fiction.

When I return to a favourite writer I don’t have to make that initial effort to become familiar with their voice. I can immediately become immersed in their world.  This may in part be about character and setting but I think it goes deeper than that. It’s knitted into the rhythm and texture of the language. It’s like the way you recognise the shape of someone you love at a distance, long before you can make out their features.

I know some people might think this is narrowing down your experience. If you read ten books by a single author, that’s nine exciting new authors you have potentially missed. But I think that though there are so many – too many – books out there, and while lots of them are good, very few are great. If you find an author who is great (however you define it) why not stick with them?

It’s the same but different

The best authors, the ones who keep you engaged, offer you both more of what you love and something different. I know there are authors who basically tell the same story over and over with minor variations (and I know there are some readers who like that) but I want the best of both.

My favourite series authors are the ones who aren’t afraid to take their protagonists in unexpected new directions. Often it’s their very familiarity that enables them to do it. You’ve been with them for a while, you have confidence that they won’t let you down, and you’re willing to go with them to places you might not have gone with a new author.

Speeding up time

There is something odd about the experience of burning through a series of books that might have been written over more than a decade. You’re compressing all the experience of the author, their characters and the wider world into a matter of weeks or months. This is a very different experience from that of the reader who read them on publication, patiently waiting maybe a year for the next one to come out.

What you gain is that you’re much more aware of the nuances in the story, the way the characters change and grow, the tiny details in their backstory, the way the relationships in one book inform the next. Perhaps what you lose is the way the characters grow in your unconscious over a long period, the way they become interwoven into your own life, moving forward through time alongside you.

When it’s time to say goodbye

There is a sense of sadness when you get to the end, but it’s bittersweet. That voice is unique and there will never be another like it, but you’ll move on. It might take time but there will be others, just as special in their own way.

Do you like to binge, or do you pace yourself? Which authors do you find addictive?

 

12 Comments

  1. I’m a terribly binge-reader sometimes. I’m currently reading the John Milton series, but I’m trying to pace myself by reading other books in between each boxed set. I’ve been known to binge-read 20+ books by the same author. I’ve burned through my entire Dick Francis collection more than once, and have had a terrible binge-reading problem with Terry Pratchett. I’ve also binge-read the Harry Potter books several times, and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes, exactly. When I was a girl, I turned to these series like friends (I think I’m riffing on something an English author, maybe Margaret Drabble said, once, about series) because I was living in a tiny town with very few like-minded people in it. It was endlessly frustrating not to be able to get the books in a series which I knew existed (listed on covers, etc.) but which were not a part of the town or county library system. But, as with the Famous Five (which I loved, too, but they were not all available in small-town Ontario Canada) it didn’t matter for plot, because time was series-time, I just wanted more. As an older reader, I’ve forced myself to return to series which I loved, in order to finish them, because I’m not good at goodbyes. For a few years, I’ve been studiously working through some series and learning exactly what you’ve articulated: there will be others and rereading has its own pleasures.

    As for your question, I think at heart I am a binge-r. But with an ever-awareness of the end approaching, which keeps that in check. But I’m going to think this over. Maybe this is an opportunity to let my binge flag fly, with little (no) penalty! (I’m also going to check out that podcast you’ve recommended.)

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  3. Wonderful post! So much resonated with me. I read everything I could get my hands on by Madeleine L’Engle, Robert B. Parker, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Daphne DuMaurier…and I’d read them all over again for the glorious reasons you give.

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  4. I’m weird. Because I like to explore new authors, I tend not to read too many books in one series at once. However, sometimes I do binge-read, and my absolute binge-reading height was tearing through all of Jerry Ahern’s 27-long Survivalist series.

    (The series itself is this utterly crazy pulpy action spectacle that starts as a sort of combination Mad Max/Red Dawn and ends with science fiction underwater cities)

    Part of it was that it was a tough time of year for me and the books provided a sort of “out”, and part of it was that Ahern, unlike a lot of other people in his genre, wrote books as a serial, so you had this sprawling 27-book narrative where I somehow wanted to know what happened next.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jerry Ahern’s a new name to me. Sounds impressive to keep a thread running through 27 books. I read a lot of crime and have noticed that many authors now will wrap up the mystery, but hint at a new direction in the protagonist’s life to keep you reading on…

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  5. I recently reread all the Earthsea books within a couple or so months for an online discussion, the last time I near enough binged on a series. Normally I space out individual instalments, partly because I take my time preparing reviews, and partly because I have so many different titles and genres and authors piling up due to me acquiring books quicker than I discard them!

    Liked by 1 person

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