Recently, I noticed that a series of books I’d been curious about in the past was becoming easier to find at my local library: Wild Cards. Someone had told me about it years ago. I don’t remember what they said about the series, but apparently it piqued my interest, because I kept looking for them a long time. They’re unusual in a couple ways. For one, they combine superpowered fiction with alternate history, which isn’t a combination I’ve encountered much (or possibly at all) elsewhere. For another, they’re primarily anthologies, but these stories don’t simply share some common theme or element – they’re set in the same world, and the plot and characters of one impact the next. I’m curious as to the planning, coordination, and editing that made that happen.
Anyway, the early books were published in the eighties and had been out of print for some time. When I’d first gone looking, I think the library only had the first book, and only a single copy of that. It couldn’t be checked out, but only requested and read in-library at one of the research libraries. (That’s a pattern I’ve found fairly common with older series of books, alas.) The series never really stopped, exactly, but there were certainly more books published in certain time periods than others – thirteen in the decade from 1987, when the first was published, to 1996; only two in the next decade; and five from 2007 until now – so more of them were older, out of print and out of reach, than not. A couple years ago, I did discover one of the more recent ones at my local branch library.* I went ahead and read it, since I couldn’t get most of the rest of the series. Just a few days ago, however, I was browsing the shelves and found not one but two more Wild Cards books at my little local library, and not the recent ones. Books two and four, from 1987 and 1988, back in print with shiny new covers.
It surprised me, but it probably shouldn’t have. Not long ago, some friends were talking about what made a book good versus popular, and how books became accepted into the literary canon (which is, in a way, about being both good and popular at the same time). What makes a book good is obviously a discussion well beyond the scope of this blog post, but being popular seems fairly straightforward: it means that a large number of people enjoy a book. One could also have a lengthy conversation about just what it means to enjoy a book and what it is people enjoy in books, but at the moment I’m more interested in a particular point one of my friends brought up. She noted that factors besides the book itself often play into popularity. One of the most obvious is publicity. If no one knows a book exists, then no one can like it and it can’t be popular. Another is politics or cultural bias. For example, many people are disinclined to pick up books about minorities, particularly if they aren’t members of the minority group themselves. Therefore, such books are often less popular.
Back to Wild Cards. There’s a very simple explanation for the books’ reappearance: the editor of the series is George R. R. Martin, of recent Game of Thrones fame. Publicity. Because of the television show, far more people are now far more aware of George R. R. Martin as an author, and they’re seeking out not just the Game of Thrones books but his other works as well. I’m certainly not going to object, since the spike in demand means I can now read books I’d wanted to for years but couldn’t find. Still, it made me think about how much differing circumstances can affect the popularity and longevity of a book. Now I wonder what books I’ve missed out on because they simply never crossed my radar. Beyond that, what stories have been lost to history due to happenstance?
As an English major, I’ve had to get used to the notion that I will never be able to read all the books. There are just too many. And in all honesty, I don’t actually want to. There are whole swathes of books that I’m not really interested in reading. For example, I don’t like being frightened, so I have no reason to read most horror novels. That’s no insult to them – they’re just not my cup of tea. However, I don’t think I’ll ever stop being wistful that I can’t read all the books that I do want to read. Not only do I not have time, but I don’t even know the vast majority of them exist, or existed.
It’s funny. Some people worry over or regret experiences they believe they’ll never have; I feel sad about the books I might never read. I doubt anyone who reads this blog is surprised, though. Welcome to lectitare.
* Fort Freak. I enjoyed it with no need to read most of the series that came before it – I had read the first book, but I think I could’ve gotten along without that fine, too. I’m curious about the title, though. All the others in the series reference cards somehow, but Fort Freak seems to break that pattern. I wonder if it’s simply a reference to something I’m not familiar with. Does anyone know?
PS – I seriously considered naming this post “book-et list” or something similar. Be grateful I ultimately decided not to inflict such a terrible pun on you as a title.