Another of my year-end rituals is to count up the number of books I’ve read in the past year, look back at what I liked the most, how the number of books I read last year compare to years past, and other weird little OCD quirks.

One thing I noticed this year, especially looking at the books I’m currently reading vs. the number of books everyone is talking about at any given time but that I haven’t (yet) read, I’m starting to worry that I’m reading too many old books and not keeping remotely current enough.

As a practice, I have five books at any given time that I switch off between as the mood strikes, and because yes, I can’t not categorize every aspect of my life, I draw these from five categories, which I hope will keep me reading a variety of things:

  • primary fiction
  • series fiction
  • random SF/F
  • non-fiction
  • graphic novel

My current primary fiction selection is Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton, which started out as a random grab-bag selection but has been moved up to the coveted “primary” slot because it’s so immensely long it’s taking me forever to finish and stalling out my whole fun grab-bag thing. Pandora’s Star was published in 2005, which was eleven years ago. This is the newest of the five.


My series fiction book is Children of Dune by Frank Herbert, published in 1976, because I’m re-reading the first few Dune books with an eye toward continuing into the Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson expanded series.

My random SF/F grab-bag selection for January is The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, which, published in 1764, really starts to drag the average age of the books I’m reading back a ways.

I always read a non-fiction book, too, with many of them on the subject of writing, which should come as no surprise to people who read this blog. Currently this is the oldest book I’m reading—probably the oldest book I’ve ever read, actually: Aristotle’s Poetics, which was published in 330 BCE—that’s right, 2346 years ago. In fairness, that’s kind of an aberration.

But even the graphic novel/compilation I’m reading now, Tales from the Crypt, Annual 4 (Issues 16-20), collects comic books originally published in 1950.

So the newest of these books is now eleven years old, and the oldest is more than three centuries older than Jesus. That averages out to 535 years (Aristotle really skews that number, doesn’t he?).

I’m currently reading nothing that’s been published in the past decade, and honestly, I find that kind disturbing. But how does this look as a trend?

Of the eighteen books I managed to read for pleasure (all the way through) in 2015 (don’t judge—it’s been a busy year), five are what I’ll call “new,” which is to say I read them within five years of their initial publication:


American Grotesque by Larry Little & Michael Moynihan (2014, only 1 year old), Attempting Normal by Marc Maron and Still Writing by Dani Shapiro (2013, 2 years old), The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (2012, 3 years old), and This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey by Steve Almond (2010, 5 years old).

In the middle range of, say, more than five but less than twenty years old, another five:

Just Kids by Patti Smith (2009, 6 years old), Beards of Our Forefathers by David Malki (2008, 7 years old), In Her Absence by Antonio Muñoz Molina and Giraffe by J.M. Ledgard (2007, 8 years old), and Faster Than the Speed of Light by João Magueijo (2003, 12 years old).

The remaining eight range from old enough to buy a six-pack of beer (21 years old) to a senior citizen (72 years old):


Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury (1994, 21 years old), Star Trek: The Enterprise Logs, Vol. 1 (1976, 39 years old), Jandar of Callisto by Lin Carter (1972, 43 years old), The Essential Silver Surfer, Vol. 1 by Stan Lee & John Buscema (collecting comic books originally published 1968-1970, so we’ll split the difference and call this 46 years old), Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert (1969, 46 years old), The War Against the Rull by A.E. Van Vogt (1959, 56 years old), The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke (1956, 59 years old), and The Midnight Raymond Chandler (the 1971 edition of an collection of stories and novels first published from 1933 to 1953, which we’ll say averages to 72 years old).

Put this together with the trend toward even older books like Aristotle’s ancient Poetics, and I seem to be getting older and older here.

Only half of the books I read in 2015 were less than ten years old, and less than a third were less than five years old. I managed to read only one book within a year of its publication date. This is a pretty clear sign that I’m not at all keeping up on what’s current.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is tremendous wisdom to be gained from books from any era, and from any part of the world, so I’m not talking about throwing the Poetics out with the bathwater here, but I’m skewed way too “classic” for my own tastes.

And how do we reconcile a desire to read new books with an obsessive compulsive reading schedule? Let’s add to this list of five categories, starting as soon as I finish one of my current books, that one of the five at any given time must have been published within 18 months of the date I start reading it.

Maybe then books like The Martian (I haven’t even seen the movie yet!) or The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which I keep seeing people talk about, won’t miss me completely. Anyway, I should get to both of those in, say, 2066, but only if I make it to the age of 102.

That would be science fiction . . .


—Philip Athans


P.S.: Having just finished Aristotle’s Poetics, I’m putting my reading where my mouth is and started in this morning (1/14/16) on Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello, which is less than 18 months old.

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Hi, Philip

    Your blog this week has got me thinking a lot. I haven’t read and finished a book in at least three years now. I can’t use the excuse I haven’t had time, since at most I write one chapter (2-2500 words) a day. I spend the rest of my time playing video games or dealing with depression.
    I really do need to read more. I’ve been stuck on one of the latest R.A. Salvatore Drizzt books, and haven’t gotten very far yet. I have such a hard time focusing on books… Maybe I should really just sit down and force myself to read. As a writer, I feel ashamed that I barely have picked up a book recently. Maybe I should try what you do. Pick up a few books from different genres and try reading them.

    I buy books with every intention of reading them, but then I never get to it. 😦
    That’s it! I’m going to grab a book right now and read! …I hope.

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  5. On a recommendation from my High School English teacher, I read part of Aristotle’s Poetics, in order to help me write a term paper.
    As I recall, the Poetics were pretty readable, and I have never forgotten the portions I read in them, mainly, on the the nature of tragedy.
    Also, I remember reading in Aristotle’s Poetics that of the elements of Drama, Spectacle was the least important. I have always found that idea very reassuring, because it seemed to pertain very well to current movies available at any given time.

  6. Previous comment continues here: My 10th Grade English teacher made us write a term paper, saying it was because we would be required to write term papers later many times throughout high school and college.
    As it turns out, I made it all the way through the rest of high school and college without ever having to write a term paper again.
    I did have to write a few short papers in Grad School, though. The tricky part was having to keep them short, since I did wind up writing some (articles and essays that actually got published) in the time between getting my Bachelor’s and entering Grad School.
    In recent years, I have started writing a series of Fantasy novels (as yet unpublished, because I am trying to figure out how to nest them together and remain cohesive before approaching a publisher with them. I am a little bit stuck now with this series, although, at times, they seem to write themselves. At times, I lose hope of ever completing them, or think, perhaps, that I may have to self-publish.)
    I know this post has become very long. OH, well, that’s me.

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