The Tenure of Books

Sometimes I get a sudden urge to go back and run a finger down my bookshelves and remember books – why I got them, why I loved them, why I still own some (but not others), what it is that makes a book get tenure on my shelf.

(Let’s keep it genre, shall we – for this post, at least – or else this would get really unwieldy…)

I still have a bunch of the early Asimov stuff – the robotics stories, the Lije Bailey detective-in-the-stars tales – and this is what I cut my SF teeth on, one of the first SF-nal forays I ever made that were frankly genre novels, my badge of courage, my entry into this brave new world. I read Asimov, and I loved it, and it was my password – “Hello stars, Asimov sent me”.

I still love some of the robotics stories, but it’s a sentimental affection. When I re-read some of them (and in the interests of accuracy it hasn’t happened in more than a decade),  I read them with an indulgent smile. They are linear. They start at a beginning, and they go on until an end, and they stop. Most of the time that end is dimly visible from that beginning anyway. *There are no surprises*.

I, and the world, have moved on from the early simple sweet Asimovian storytelling. Comparing Asimov with, say, Stross, is like going from a Newtonian to an Einsteinian universe – one where the earlier tenets still hold, in many simple cases, but where the nature of the latter world has been explained in a way that would make the former world blink and clasp its hands and breathe, “wow, magic”.

Asimov himself moved on, up to a point – the Foundation books were an order of magnitude more complex and layered than the laws of robotics stuff. We all grow – writers and readers both – it’s part of being alive. We grow up as people and with us an entire genre is also growing up and out, changing even as we watch, kicking its baby feet one bright shiny morning and getting kitted out to go fight a war in a distant galaxy that night and a hundred years later all at the same time.

But I still have them, the early Asimovs. They remain my badge of honor, my password, my certificate of passage. They may be, now, slightly battered vintage cars sitting retired in a safe garage somewhere and not being taken out much anymore because their tires are balding and their shock absorbers are shot – but they were the cars in which you took your date to Lovers’s Leap and made out in the back seat while the lights twinkled in the town down below. They’ve got tenure, those books. They done earned them.

Then there’s the Pern books. Once again, I’ve got them – or most of them, anyway. I don’t own the Menolly books, Menolly irritated me in many of the same ways that Robert Jordan’s women irritate me. I read them, what, twenty years ago now? More…?

I can pinpoint exactly when McCaffrey began to go south on me, though, and that was not with the Pern books, not then, not in the beginning –  it was the Crystal Singer books. Good grief, but that woman was unpleasant. Tough, sure, able to fend for herself, sure, talented, way sure, but MAN was she unpleasant – and with that, all the rest fell away for me. Why would I care about what happened to an unpleasant woman? I read the Crystal Singer books. I no longer own them.

I still have the Dragonflight/Dragonquest/White Dragon trilogy. I haven’t touched them for years and years and years – and EVERYTHING that has been said about them in so many other places is absolutely true, so help me, and I have no idea why I go back to that idea and insist that I still love the whole sense of Dragons and Telepathic Bonding and all that. Tolkien said once that he “desired dragons with a profound desire” – he knew of whereof he spoke. McCaffrey tapped into a powerful fantasy with her dragon-human bond – who wouldn’t want to have such a creature for a pet, a friend, a companion? I have to say, though, that once again those books fail me TODAY in that they are too linear, too simplistic, too damned obvious. Over many years of reading my tastes have obviously gravitated towards the complex and the layered,  the rich and the lush, and Pern no longer delivers that for me, not in the quantities that I crave now. Besides, if we’re talking worldbuilding, they lost me way back at agenothree.

Another example. I first read Orson Scott Card’s Songmaster novel in a partial published in – what was it, Analog, Asimov’s one of those, may years ago, I no longer have that original. I fell in love with the story, with the power of the tale, with the voice in which it was told, with the compassion and the tragedy that followed the development of the relationships of young Ansset and those who surrounded him, loved him, molded him, ruined him, redeemed him.

And then I bought the entire novel when it came out, and the second half of it – the part not published in the magazine – was weaker, for me. Lots weaker. But I liked it enough to continue reading. I picked up Ender’s Game – and really loved it. But then that franchise ran out of steam fast, and by the third book in that series I was gone – I did borrow Card’s attempt to re-harness the original storyline, the Ender story told through Bean’s eyes, from the library and read it, but I don’t own it. And other Card books – particularly the Ships of Earth novels – annoyed me so much that I was literally growling at the things when I was reading them. Those books, or at least some of them, I still have – but the only reason they’re still on my shelf is inertia. I’m just too procrastinatory. But they’ll go, eventually, probably. I KNOW I’ll never return to those books again.

Other classics – Dune. The original Dune took my breath away then, and still does today. Here was my thirst for complexity slaked, and then some. It was incredible, and powerful, and it found a deep place within me. But the sequels – ah, the sequels – I managed to read the first three. I haven’t touched any since then, especially not the ones written in collaboration by people other than Frank Herbert. Sorry, but that was HIS story. Being someone’s child doesn’t necessarily mean you have the God-given right to continue that person’s “Legacy”, and indeed sometimes it is probably the wiser course of action not to. But I can’t really speak for the later books in the Dune franchise. I haven’t read them. If anyone has anything positive to say about them please feel free.

Zelazny’s Amber. LOVE the original five. Less devoted to the second set, but I still have them. I hated with a flaming passion the attempt to resurrect “Roger Zelazny’s Amber” a couple of years ago. Sure, the story he told had potential prequels or sequels dancing around in the stars. But *Zelazny is gone*. NOBODY else does Amber. NOBODY. This was a place of his heart – he understood it, even the things about it that he didn’t talk about in the books – and perhaps he MEANT those prequels and sequels to stay untold. In fact, I seem to remember him saying as much just before he died – that he didn’t particularly want anyone else playing in that sandbox after he was gone. Those books? Full tenure. And not just because one of them happens to be signed.

Mary Stewart’s Merlin books? Keepers, all. One of the best and most powerful tellings of a story told many, many times. And it makes things like “Mists of Avalon” strike a particularly sour note for me.

Spider Robinson’s stuff – ye gods, do I have to explain? The man’s a Pun King, and for someone similarly afflicted his books are a constant joyride of rolling-eye groaning delight. Keepers, again – and once more not because one of them is signed thusly: ‘To Alma, who obviously has The Callahan Touch herself.’

What else have I got there? Gene Wolfe? Larry Niven? Michael Moorcock?

Guy Gavriel Kay? Oh, him I’ve got – ALL of his books I’ve got. I could rank them for you, sure, from the astonishingly sublime (Tigana) to the merely magnificent (Song for Arbonne, Lions of Al-Rassan) to things like one of his newer books, Ysabel, which I found a tad “meh”, and not only because he apparently makes a conscious return to his Fionavar roots in this book – and I consider the Fionavar Trilogy to be his training trike, the fantasy novel(s) in which he cut his teeth and which led him to write gems like Tigana. And then there’s the latest China based ones which have an added dimension in that the writer whom I admire so much literally FOLLOWD me to China. I wrote my historical fantasy Chinese-inspired epic FIRST… But I’ve got ’em all. He’s a keeper. Always will be.

Glenda Larke – friend and colleague – who understands story, worldbuilds with passion, and Writes Good Character. Keepers.

Newer favorites, like Catherynne Valente, Elizabeth Bear.

Space will always be at a premium in my bookshelves, where things are shelved double-thickness and books often stuffed in sideways on top of the stacked paperbacks where there’s room.

But some books get bought, get read, get evicted. Others… stay.

They’ve got their hooks into my heart and my memory, somehow, and they are more than just the contents of a bookshelf. They are a set of signposts for the literary road I’ve travelled so far, and may be choosing in the future. They are not possessions. They are that part of me that is – that part that CAN be – written in other people’s words. They represent the bits of my mind and heart and spirit which THAT writer, THAT story, made possible.

So. What’s on your bookshelves, then…?




About Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander's life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website (, her Facebook page (, on Twitter ( or at her Patreon page (


The Tenure of Books — 7 Comments

  1. Let’s see in fantasy…..(as my sci-fi appears to be most of what is packed up to make room on a bookshelf for the kid’s books)

    Tara K Harper’s Wolfwalker series. It was so many firsts for me–first human/animal bond, first female lead in fantasy, etc. I haven’t read it since Jr High and am flat afraid to at this point–other beloved books from that era of my life I have tried to reread have overall not aged well, and I am not yet willing to risk the memory of that set! (But on my shelf it will stay).

    Zelazny’s Amber (Corwin series-never read the Merlin). I didn’t like the first book, but am glad I kept reading. The world building was fascinating and the best part to me, and in college we spent many weekends playing Throne Wars set in that world. The world impacted me a lot more than the story or the writing, but that world is utterly fascinating.

    Tolkien. The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, and the Sirmillian. The latter I won’t reread because it makes me sad, but it’s well written and I love the world building. This was probably the first complex series I read. His unfinished tales should have stayed unpublished, however, and those left as soon as I read them. Sometimes I think this is there because it just seems like it should be. Earthsea trilogy is similar–I enjoyed it, but not sure I’ll reread it, but I remember it on my dad’s shelf so it stays on mine, and I think my kid might enjoy it soon.

    Vernor Vinge’s True Names is one of the few short story collections I’ve really enjoyed, and maybe the only sci-fi one I’ve kept. I actually have 2 copies because I loaned one out once and it didn’t come back and now I am not willing to risk my only copy. 🙂 I should re-read this one….short stories are about all I can keep my mind right now in my life and they are fading from memory.

    Stranger at the Wedding by Barbara Hambly. Female lead with an attitude (but a good one), fast read, made me smile. Not that complicated, not that deep, but a fun read. I reread it years later and still enjoyed it. I was thrilled when I found out there was other books in the world…until I realized they were a “someone from our world falls into that one” series…which is a trope I am more than tired of (and never really liked). So this one stays alone. I also really like the dress worn on the front cover, which doesn’t hurt. 🙂

    Sherrilyn Kenyon — I have a couple of her Dark-Hunter novels. I was in high school when Interview with a Vampire came out (which I found incredibly BORING) and I am thus fascinating with the idea of vampires, but overall have been highly unimpressed with the actual books written in that niche. She was the first one that didn’t make me grind me teeth or fall asleep, so I kept it as proof someone can do something decent with that idea, and it was fun to read. Though I think I didn’t realize what I was in for the first time and took it to an exam I was proctoring. 🙂 It is also one of the better urban fantasy-types. I’ve only read a couple so far.

    Sword Woman by Howard (and another similar with a female pirate, but some of my books are packed up due to having to give the kid a bookshelf… and I don’t remember the name). Not due to good writing or complex stories, but just because they kickstarted my own imagination and have stuck there for years–and any book that sticks in my brain for years can stay on my shelf.

  2. Of that list, the only one that I have is Elizabeth Bear, but she’s too new for what I’d consider “tenure.” Ditto Charles Stross. I got rid of Asimov and Dune decades ago when I realized I could not longer read their leaden prose. Mary Stewart wrote well, but I never took to her Merlin series–dunno why.

    In genre: Lord of the Rings, Eddison, Sylvia Townsend Warner, George Macdonald, C.S. Lewis, Elizabeth Marie Pope and several other children’s writers beginning with E. Nesbitt, Mervyn Peake.

  3. Hmm. I have all the classics of fantasy: LOTR, Narnia, E. Nesbit, Diana Wynn Jones. But this year I got rid of all 20 hardbound volumes of H. Rider Haggard. (They’re on Gutenberg, so they are not gone, just no longer on my shelves.)

      • I’ve been reading the updated version of that as an ebook, but when I was looking for something else the other day I found my original copy on the shelf (I knew I had it!)

        But it was reading Chip’s fiction that made me want to read what he had to say about writing. Babel-17 is still special to me. I loved the Neveryon books. And given how nervous the state of the world is making me, I might need to read Dhalgren again.

  4. Pingback: Why do we keep some books forever? - Duchess of FantasyDuchess of Fantasy