Another Perspective

How to Read a Hundred Books

It's easy, once you know how to discover new authors.

By 9.19.08

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In the early 1970s, I worked at a publisher's representative's office in San Francisco, and made one of the best friends I've ever had. Lillian, the office manager, sat across from me, and she and I talked books and politics and life for the whole time I worked there. We've been talking ever since, and we still correspond.

Lillian taught me that I could read for fun.

That sounds odd, I know, but till then, I had read books the way I read them in high school and college: Dostoyevsky, Proust, Balzac, Tolstoy. Heavy, serious literature. Lillian vouched for me with the Mechanics Institute Library, where I became a member, and she introduced me to Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, and Raymond Chandler.

While I lived in San Francisco, and while I was a member of that great library, I read every one of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries (more than 70) and every book P.G. Wodehouse had ever published (near 90).

I'm still reading that way.

EARLY THIS YEAR, I realized that I was going to have to find some new authors. I took my key from jacket art. About 20 years ago, Carl Hiassen's publishers started putting out his kicky comic novels with bright tropical pastel cover designs. Since then, publishers with authors who may appeal to the Hiassen audience have adopted the same jacket designs.

First off, I discovered the Randy Wayne White Doc Ford novels. Doc Ford, the White hero, is a marine biologist living in a hip little Florida harbor community. Ford, with a deep dark intelligence background, gets into all kinds of super violent scrapes entirely at odds with his professorial demeanor.

Six or seven books there.

Then, browsing nearby library shelves, I found William Tappley, who may be unknown to readers outside New England. Tappley has no paperback deal, so his books haven't circulated very widely. He writes about Boston lawyer Brady Coyne, who solves mysteries in a more or less conventional fashion.

Tappley appears to have stopped writing in the early nineties. Our library has nine or ten of his books. I've read them all.

About the same time, I started reading mega-bestseller John Grisham. Interesting developments in Grisham. His first big seller, The Firm, is absolutely horrible, a contrived commercial concoction obviously aimed at the lowest common denominator of bestseller reader. Then came another awful brick of a bestseller, The Pelican Brief, and thereafter (as I imagine) Grisham said, "Enough. Now I'm going to write the books I want to write."

And he did, and those books are very good. I can especially recommend The Last Juror. Grisham has written around two dozen books, and I've read nearly all of them.

MANY YEARS BACK, I HAD PICKED UP a novel by James Lee Burke, and for some reason, it put me off. I continued to see his name, but had ignored the books. In this current reading stint, I decided to give him another try, and loved his work. Most of Burke's books feature his Louisiana sheriff investigator Dave Robicheaux. The plots can get Byzantine, but Burke's phenomenal style and characters carry the books forward. I've now read all the Robicheaux books, plus the Billy Bob books, set in Montana.

Call that 30 more books.

And that's the way it goes. I've left out a lot of authors here: Robert Crais, Jonathan Kellerman, Stephen White. My latest discoveries are Lee Child (six books) and T. Jefferson Parker (eight or ten). With Parker, I've discovered, you have to check the publication date. Before about 1996, his books could get confusing and confused. By the evidence of the characters and plots, I presume that Mr. Parker got sober in the mid-nineties, and thereafter his life and his prose cleared up.

So I figure that, this year, I've read a hundred or more books so far. I've had some disappointments. James Lee Burke's daughter Alifair has written some mysteries, too, but she's nowhere near as good as her old man. Sometimes publishers push writers for "one more of those," and the new book falls flat. Example: Bangkok Tattoo, by John Burdett, a flaccid follow-on to his fantastic Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Haunts.

Of course I've had time. Unfortunately, I've had time. And you can read flat on your back.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.