Ask a Book Question: The 46th in a Series (The Third Ford First)

December 13, 2006 | 3 books mentioned 3

Poornima wrote in with an interesting question about what to do when you really want to read a book, but there are books that come before it. Her question has to do with Richard Ford’s new book The Lay of the Land, which was recently reviewed on this blog by Noah. Poornima asks,

I have been very tempted to read the new Richard Ford book after reading the review on The Millions. Does one need to have read the first two to read this one?

I suspect that you would enjoy The Lay of the Land without having read the other books. All three books – the first two are The Sportswriter and Independence Day – cover the life of a New Jersey everyman, Frank Bascombe, but I don’t think there’s anything in the book that is only fully explained in the previous books. On the other hand, you would likely not get the full sense of who Frank Bascombe is, since he is after all, one of the more storied characters in contemporary literature.

This raises another interesting question, as well. I have read the first two Bascombe books, but I read them both more than six years ago. As such, I don’t remember much about Bascombe, though I have impressions of him left from when I did read about him. I have to wonder how much those faint impressions would affect my experience of reading the new book. My thinking, though, is go ahead and read The Lay of the Land and if you like it, go back and read the first two Bascombe books. Readers, what do you think?

created and edits The Millions. He is co-editor of the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, called "funny, poignant, relentlessly thought-provoking" by The Atlantic. He and his family live in New Jersey. If you'd like to correspond, please don't hesitate to email.

3 comments:

  1. I even struggle with this issue when I'm considering a new novel by an author with previous books that aren't related to the new one.

    For whatever reason, I tend toward the oeuvre approach, i.e., watching the writer's trajectory.

    This is probably a bad thing in the sense that I've sat out on writers like John Irving because I feel like I've already missed too much.

    In Ford's case, I think Frank is a layered and developed character with a history that is covered in the two prior books. I'm not sure you need to read them to understand Frank, but I think it's more satisfying to do so.

    It's not quite the same question as whether you should start one of those multi-volume presidential biographies with the meaty years or at the beginning, but it's close.

  2. It's an interesting question because, though component parts of the same story, the three books are very different. I think I started with Independence Day and then worked backwards to The Sportswriter. My feeling, without getting too lyrical, is that Independence Day remains the definitive Bascombe book, complete, spacious, elegant. But I see no harm in starting at the end, so to speak, with T.L.O.T.L. In each of the books, Frank Bascombe is at a specific stage in his life, and that i think needs no additional context to appreciate. The comment about an author's oeuvre makes me think of going back a bit further, to Ford's short story collection Rock Springs, which contains some really hard-hitting, clean and lean writing. Check out the last story, entitled 'Communist'…
    N.D.

  3. ank you for your responses to my comment. I am leaning toward #s 2 and 3.

    I suspect my reading of the books will be different now because I will be reading them back to back as opposed to waiting for 10 years for the latest.

    There is something to be said about following a writer's work. I found I liked Claire Messud's "The Emperor's Children" less than her "The Last Life" (which I love best among all her work). Not sure how I would have reacted if I had read EC first.

    But better late than never to jump in. Thanks again.

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