Reading as a Chain Reaction

I’m currently reading a manuscript that has me itching to read some Shakespeare, for various reasons I can’t really go into here. But it’s also made me look at how I read, and how often something I’m reading sparks me to add items to that weaving, wobbly to-read stack by my bed.

For die-hard readers, there’s no doubt that the reading habit itself is sufficient to get you to pick up your next book, but what you choose to read depends on so many factors. Maybe you’re working your way through a series, so the next book is a logical choice. If you’re binge reading in a certain genre, then maybe you’ve made a stack of romances or historicals or mysteries that you intend to plow through. Or the opposite could be true; you need a palate cleanser from the genre you’ve been reading and so you choose something diametrically opposed to give your brain something fresh to consider. And let’s not forget obsession with a new author, where you’ve discovered someone whose style and storytelling has you totally hooked, and you work your way right through everything they’ve written.

But what I’m talking about is reading in reaction to the book you’ve just finished, where something in that work sets you off on a new tangent. Sometimes it can be because the book mentions subjects that you want to learn more about and you go in search of reference works. I remember the first time I read Katherine Neville’s marvelous adventure/romance/romp of a book, The Eight, which takes place in two time frames, the 1790s and the 1970s, and cuts across continents and history in a way that really captured my imagination. In its wake, I found myself diving into books about chess, Charlemagne, Robespierre, Algiers, mathematical puzzles, and more. Part of it was interest in the subjects themselves, and part was fascination with the way Neville had included such an array of topics into a single novel and made it work, like some sort of crazy quilt of a story. I’m certain I’d read books prior to that which inspired me to go read something else, but this was the first time I recall being conscious of the scope of that chain reaction.

Other books actually name check titles or authors that you find yourself adding to your to-read list. Something about a character you love extolling the virtues of their favorite novel makes you want to share the experience. Jo Walton’s Among Others features a heroine who, among other things, loves to read science fiction and fantasy, and woven into the fabric of the story are her encounters with the classics of that genre and her thoughts about different authors kept in diary form. Anyone tracking the titles through the book comes away with a hefty to-read list, and while knowledge of those books isn’t essential to reading Walton’s work, reading them does add another level of understanding of the protagonist.

Reading often feels like a treasure hunt to me; you pick up a book, maybe having read a good review or knowing a friend loved it, and you delve between the covers to see what you discover — gold or jewels or maybe just straw. Books that lead me to other books always seem like they’ve given me an added prize.

How about you? What was the last thing you read that set off a reading chain reaction?