Binge-reading: Book Lists to Devour
Whether you think of it this way or not, you’ve probably been binge-reading all your life. My first big foray into binge-reading was a series called The Saddle Club, about three girls having crazy horse-related adventures in their small town in Virginia. I couldn’t get enough of them! And in fact, I read little else until my mother told me she’d give me a Beanie Baby if I’d read a book that wasn’t about horses. I sighed, convinced, and took some weird book off my shelf—I’d gotten it for Christmas and it was about some kid named Harry Potter. (True story.)
Anyway, that joyful experience of gobbling down a whole stack of related books one after another is something that seems to taper off after childhood. With one’s time feeling so limited, it’s hard to justify devoting so much of it to one character or author or genre. But recently, binge-watching has become a buzz word amongst TV fans—it’s what you’re doing when, say, you don’t go outside all weekend and spend that time watching three straight seasons of Downton Abbey. With Netflix about to release an entire new season of cult favorite Arrested Development in one fell swoop, Entertainment Weekly recently published a guide to binge-watching for any occasion. Well, why should TV fans have all the fun? I think it’s time to embrace once again the literary gluttony that we’ve all enjoyed from time to time. Here you’ll find a guide to ten great binge-reading experiences. There are of course whole hosts of fantasy, sci-fi, and thriller series waiting for you to lose yourself in for weeks on end, but here I’ve tried to provide a broader sampling of immersive reads for a variety of moods and genres. Happy reading!
As mentioned above, there are all kinds of delicious sci-fi epics out there. But for sheer entertainment value from start to finish, there’s none I enjoy more than Douglas Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy (there are actually five books—the misnomer is deliberate). From the swaggering alien Zaphod Beeblebrox to the world-weary android Marvin, the characters are both absurd and full of heart, and the plots are a similarly winning blend of frivolous and profound. The result is a series of comic novels light enough to swallow whole, but substantial enough to keep you engaged. If you’re still looking for more after you’ve finished book number five (and found out the meaning of life, the universe, and everything), check out Eoin Colfer’s sixth volume, And Another Thing…, which was published in honor of the first novel’s thirtieth anniversary.
Binge-Reading, Chick-Lit Style
J. Courtney Sullivan’s books are truly too well-crafted to be saddled with the chick-lit label. But what’s great about them is that they scratch the chick-lit itch—family and friendship drama, predictable romantic woes, charming locales—while offering genuinely relatable characters, stellar dialogue, and thought-provoking perspectives on the lives and relationships of women everywhere. I prefer her second novel, Maine, which follows three generations of women during a summer at the quaint family summer home—it feels more complete and satisfying than her first, Commencement. Both, though, are serious page-turners. Then, while you’re waiting on Sullivan’s next novel, turn back the clock and read (or re-read) all five of Ann Brashares’s Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books. They’re hokey, sure, but heartfelt and compulsively readable. Be forewarned: the fifth, Sisterhood Everlasting, is by no means the breezy read you might expect, and will add a dose of gravity to this fairly light-hearted list. Should you need a final pick-me-up after finishing it, I recommend Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements, a story of a family wedding on a New England island. It’s light on plot but full of beautifully drawn characters and turns of phrase, and acts as a perfect palate cleanser to top off this dramatic feast.
Graphic Novel Binge-Reading
At the summer camp where I used to work, the camp nurse would sometimes tell stories for the campers’ evening entertainment. That sounds dull, but it was anything but: she kept even the littlest kids rapt with stories of a mysterious mythological figure named Dream and the other entities that live in the Dreaming. It turned out that the stories she told came from The Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed graphic novel. Stretching over ten paperbacks, the entire saga of Dream (also known as Morpheus) is mind-bendingly intellectual, deeply spiritual, and beautifully drawn by several different artists. For complete immersion in a detailed alternate reality, The Sandman is one of the very best. Serious fans are in luck: they can also work their way through a whole range of spin-off series.
Short Stories: A Binge-Reading Smorgasbord
When we think of James Joyce or J.D. Salinger, we think of their famous novels, those stalwarts of literature classes everywhere. But while classic lit might not seem like a entertaining choice for reading with abandon, the shorter works of great authors are often offbeat, entertaining, and easy to swallow. I’m a particular fan of Joyce’s Dubliners—if you’re thinking of Ulysses, just don’t—and Salinger’s 9 Stories, which both contain enough variety to be readily consumed as complete collections. Considerably denser but even more intriguing are the surreal short stories of Jorge Luis Borges; I recommend Labyrinths as a place to start. Each of the stories in these collections is its own bite-sized universe, and you’ll find yourself wanting more and more of them.
Historical Romance Binge-Reading
In my opinion, there’s really only one choice here: Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. With seven books and counting, this saga of time-traveling World War II nurse Claire and her strapping Scotsman Jamie is jam-packed with meticulous historical detail, nefarious villains, and a healthy dose of sex. With their near-miss adventures and notorious cliffhangers, these books certainly rely on genre tropes, but they’re also charmingly written and densely plotted, with storylines stretching through multiple generations and time periods. Guilty pleasures, perhaps, but with much more pleasure than guilt.
Epic Fantasy: The Binge-Reading Gold Standard
Picking a favorite in this category is surely a controversial business, but for me, the choice is clear: Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. These children’s books are fantastic adventure stories, but even more compellingly, they use the world of fantasy to explore the intersection of science and religion as compellingly as any novel written for adults. Though the first volume, The Golden Compass, is the best-known, I think that each installment improves upon the last, with the third being the best by far. Start out concerned with the fate of our heroine Lyra, and read on to see her story become intertwined with that of every soul in every universe. There are longer fantasy binge-reads to enjoy, but for me, this one remains both the most ambitious and the most gratifying.
Binge-Reading for Self-Improvement
Self-help books don’t seem like an obvious choice for a reading marathon; their treacly tone and barrage of directives are often best taken in small doses. Martha Beck’s books, however, are the exception. They’re devoid of easy fixes, which is precisely what makes them engaging reads. Beck leads her readers on thorough, detailed explorations of the many ways in which they can more authentically develop the lives they want over time, and she manages to do so without ever being condescending. She’s also the only self-help author I’ve encountered who makes me laugh out loud as I read; the cameos by her beagle, Cookie, are especially hilarious. Start with Steering By Starlight or Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, and be prepared to seek out Beck’s complete works.
Books don’t have to be written by the same author or even be part of the same genre to qualify for a good binge-read; one of the most entertaining ways to soak in a whole pile of books is to choose a few that are about each other in one way or another. The pairing I have in mind: Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The latter features prominently in the former, and both are moving and surprisingly comical. Even if you’ve never liked sports books, you’ll like The Art of Fielding; even if you think of classics as drudgery, you’ll be sucked in by Moby-Dick. If you enjoy this kind of pairing, try putting together books about authors with books by those authors, as recently suggested on the excellent podcast Books on the Nightstand. A good place to start might be Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises alongside Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, which is about Hemingway’s relationship with his wife Hadley Richardson.
The Best Thrillers for Binge-Reading
Once I outgrew The Saddle Club, I moved on to many other epic periods of binge-reading. Perhaps the most remarkable was the summer I was thirteen, when I read nothing but books by Michael Crichton. Crichton’s gift for blending fluffy thrills with brainy backstory is second to none, and there’s plenty of variety in his work to keep you satisfied for months. Start with Jurassic Park for sure, and then move on to lesser-known gems like Prey (nano-tech attacks!) and Timeline (perhaps my favorite, and Crichton’s sole foray into writing about actual time travel). Even his straight historical novel The Great Train Robbery is worth a look. There are plenty of other great writers of pseudoscientific thrillers out there, but Crichton has always been my top pick.
Binge-Reading About Binge-Reading
It’s a funny thing about serious readers: we love to read about books almost as much as we love to read books themselves. Sometimes getting lost in someone else’s reading adventures is a satisfying counterpoint to getting lost in your own, so I recommend devoting the occasional stretch of reading to books about books. Book critic Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading is full of entertaining insights into her life of professional reading, and novelist Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, in which the author spends a year reading only the books on her own shelves, is a lovely exploration of the role books play in the homes and lives of their readers. A more offbeat but oddly poetic choice is Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet. It’s a meandering, dreamy look at book collectors through history and how personal libraries interact with our innermost selves.
Armed with the above suggestions, give in to your inner literary glutton. Push aside the new releases clamoring for your attention, forget about moderation, and fall into the beautiful black holes that books can provide.
Image credit: austinevan via Creative Commons