Summertime, and the readin’ is easy.
It seems like everyone is binge-watching television these days. It started with the 2013 release of an entire season all at once of the Netflix series House of Cards. Or at least that galvanized a trend. No doubt prior to that, plenty of people like me, who were not quite on the crest of the “It TV” wave, binged on whole seasons of, say, The Wire, Homeland or Downton Abbey to get up to speed for an upcoming live season. I did with all three.
But bingeing on the arts is by no means a new phenomenon. I have been binge-reading ever since I can remember. Melting into a beanbag chair, ignoring sunny days outside, and cranking the rock opera Tommy through big plastic headphones, I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy virtually nonstop. The Hobbit was assigned in 7th grade English class, but it wasn’t enough. These books swept me away, suspending time, at least in my mind, and turbo-charging my imagination. I raced through a thousand more pages, disregarding homework, meals and showers. Well, not really. I was a teenage boy. I had to eat.
Before Tolkien, there was The Hardy Boys and those little red biographies about everybody from Genghis Khan to Clara Barton, and James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small series. To me, this sort of immersive reading is deepest when it involves a series of at least three books following the same characters on a journey, quest or some other spellbinding plot.
A high school binge lowered the bar sufficiently to merit the guilt typically associated with bingeing—when responsibilities, no matter how pressing, are ignored for the sake of, ahem, artistic indulgence. I’ll blame it on my buddy Read (pun unavoidable), who roped me in. Before the Robert Altman blockbuster movie M*A*S*H and resulting TV show, there was the book of the same name by Richard Hooker, in which the comedic-duo-in-scrubs Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John torment Hot Lips Houlihan and Frank Burns, and Radar O’Reilly provides the grease that keeps the 4077th MASH in Korea in gear. Hooker then wrote a racy sequel called M*A*S*H Goes to Maine, following the cast of characters back to the states. This gave birth to a gripping (at least to a 17-year-old boy) series written with a co-author chronicling the gang’s drunken and risqué escapades everywhere from Vegas to Moscow.
By college, I was on to spymaster Robert Ludlum. While Professor Edge droned on about George Eliot’s venerable (I’m sure) Mill on the Floss (or was it Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders?), under my desk an open copy of The Matarese Circle had me in its thrall. After graduation (somehow, yes), traveling in Europe and reading number twelve, I hit my Ludlum limit. While lying on a train bunk, chugging through Italy on a moonlit night, the plot line seemed all too familiar. The window was cracked just enough to be tempting. I closed the book, squinted an eye, carefully aligned the book’s spine with the open air, and with a flick of the wrist, The Bourne Identity sailed into the great beyond.
In the early ’90s, I imbibed deeply of Patrick O’Brian’s novels about the Napoleonic Wars-era Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, Stephen Maturin, reading 16 books in four months. Called the best historical novels ever written and the most profound on male friendship, the series contains a tangle of nautical and period terminology and real-life characters. I spent the next eight years on a binge of a different sort: writing companion books to O’Brian’s series, a biography of the enigmatic author (who turned out not to be who he claimed), and my book Skeletons on the Zahara, which blossomed from the research.
While Hillary Mantel’s brilliant Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have me eagerly awaiting the third of the expected trilogy, until recently, I was not sure I had the appetite to binge-read anymore. Oh, sure, I read the Harry Potter novels out loud with my daughters, one of whom finally said, “Dad, you’re too slow,” and devoured the second book in two days, but I was never really hooked. Then while on vacation, I picked up Andrea Camilleri’s Death in Sicily. The hook set, and I read six of these humorous, sly and tantalizing detective novels in a few weeks, which encouraged me to try another series I had heard much about: George R.R. Martin’s epic historical fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire—wherein there be dragons.
Sixteen hundred pages into the mesmerizing five-volume series, toward the end of the second of these hefty tomes, I am blissfully binge-reading once again. And now that I’ve finished the first book, I can binge-watch the first season of the HBO series. All I need is one good heat wave, a cranked AC, and the will to pull myself away from book two for nine hours.