📚 Now reading: Earth is But a Star. And a musing about reading anthologies.

Earth is But a Star, edited by Damien Broderick.
A science-fiction anthology of far-future/dying Earth stories and essays, by writers including Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, C.J. Cherryh, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, and Robert Silverberg. A fascinating, if cerebral, read through contemplations on humanity and Earth’s far-distant future.

This book is out of print. I first saw this in a local library and was so taken by the theme that I determined to buy a copy by hook or by crook. I ended up emailing the publisher, a small university imprint, and asking if they had any copies leftover from the original print run. Remarkably, they did and were willing to sell. So I had the whimsical experience of calling up and buying an OOP book directly from its publisher.

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Unlike novels, the format of anthologies encourage dipping in and out of it as you please, picking and choosing which stories to read, not needing to read anything in order. Earth is But a Star has fiction interspersed with essays, so it’s tempting to just read all the fiction and then check out an essay or two, maybe read them later. (But face it, “read them later” never happens.) But I resolved to read the anthology in order from cover to cover. In doing so, I noticed something.

This habit of dipping in and out of a collection of stories is encouraged (or exacerbated) by publishing in the Internet age. News websites, blogs, online fiction ‘zines; and the practice of saving articles to Instapaper or Pocket… it’s so easy to read a piece of writing online that is isolated and removed from any surrounding context. Even online fiction ‘zines present their issues less in book-form with stories nestled between covers and lined up in a certain order, but as a landing page from which one clicks on links to stories. Apart from being linked from the same page, an online story or article has no spatial or temporal relation to the other stories in the issue. Less sense of a chronology, more sense of a radial branching network. That’s the kind of pattern that arises from a hypertext medium.

Whereas a physical ‘zine or anthology has stories in some sort of sequential order. Sure, a webpage has that too (the links are in some order), but a physical book embodies that orderly restraint more stringently than hypertext. One subconsciously assumes that there is a purpose to that order, and I’m certain there is.

Even so, one can still dip in and out of an anthology. It’s easy to jump ahead to the next story if the current one doesn’t hold your attention. Especially in Earth is But a Star, where I’m vastly more interested in the fiction than in the essays. But I resolved to have some self-control and read from cover to cover, missing nothing.

But I think there’s more to this than self-control: it’s being willing to surrender myself to the journey within the book. I’m relinquishing my choice to dictate which order I read the stories, and allow the book (and the editor/s) to lead me from page to page.

In this Internet age where reading material is rife and often disembodied from context, and the consumer is the one dictating how and in what order to consume media, it is a discipline to relinquish this choice and submit oneself to be led in a specific way. But I think there’s something profound in this submission. I’m accepting that the editor has purpose and meaning to this narrative trajectory they want me to go on. That there is a meaning and motive behind this journey, and that is worth exploring and pondering, even if I don’t agree with the trajectory. That every stop made, be it a short story or an essay, is a worthy stop to make right here, right now, at this point in the anthology. By surrendering myself to a journey directed by someone else, and resolving not to miss any stops, I get to experience a narrative different from mine.

Yes, it’s something (relatively) trivial: reading a fiction anthology cover to cover. But if I can’t submit my attention and choice to an anthology editor, am I willing to submit to some more important story? If I can’t take time to read a fiction collection in order without missing anything, how can I expect to take time to read and thoroughly investigate some bigger, more serious news issue, from all angles?

Sustaining attention through a narrative trajectory is a habit to cultivate in the trivial occasions as in the more serious occasions. Best I start with a science-fiction anthology.