For Love of an Author: The Value of Being a Completist

I finished reading Jane Austen’s major works (and unfinished novels) in ninth grade, with Mansfield Park, and thereby officially became a completist, although I later read more of her juvenilia and claimed that title more firmly. Being a completist, or a near-completist, was nothing new to me then, coming towards the end of the era of full-on immersive early-teen reading.

I had already basically completed the journey of reading every single novel by beloved YA author Madeleine L’Engle — I even ventured out of the YA section and ferreted out her obscure adult books in my dogged quest. Without even trying, I had read at least 90% of the works by other classic YA writers, like Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery, not to mention close to every original Nancy Drew novel and a few dozen Agatha Christie mysteries. But as I began to discover dozens of adult authors, it grew harder to follow each throughout their entire career. There was so much more breadth for me to discover that taking time out to read an author’s work for depth required more discipline.

The last time I intentionally became a completist was soon after graduating college, when I sat down and read the last minor works by the Brontë sisters, Agnes Grey by Anne and The Professor by Charlotte, supplementing my rampage through their bigger novels in high school. Having also read some Brontë juvenilia, I felt satisfied in declaring myself a Brontë completist.

Recently, I decided I might try to become a completist of another author. Yet choosing my target was complicated, as many of my favorite authors, the 19th century ones to be precise, were so prolific.  I’ve read eight Dickens novels, but still have seven to go. Barnaby Rudge, anyone?

Other obvious choices were treasured lady novelists like Edith Wharton, George Eliot, Willa Cather and Elizabeth Gaskell.  Only two to five novels or so stood between me and completist status for each. But I was thwarted, in Eliot’s case, by the existence of Romola, her massive historical novel of the Renaissance that I once tried to read and decided pretty quickly that I could do without. (Finnegan’s Wake is another such novel that has kept many of us Joyce fans from being completists). And in Wharton’s case, though her books are easier and sometimes border on trashy beach reads, I realized there were actually way more than three. Specifically, I had been convinced that the only novels I had left to read were obscure titles Sanctuary, The Children, and The Mother’s Recompense. This should be a piece of cake, I thought; I can do it in a week. But then I looked into what was in print of hers, and discovered even more obscure titles like Bunner Sisters, The Marne, The Fruit of the Tree, The Gods Arrive, and many more. I may have easily read all of her major and semi-major novels, but it would take months of serious effort to read every single novel she wrote. So if I want to be a completist of any of these women’s work, I will have to take a month or two out of my reading and get serious.

An informal survey on Facebook revealed that the drive towards a complete read of an author’s oeuvre is common among bookworm types, but many of us fall just shy of achieving our goals. I also discovered a wide variety of authors whom my acquaintances have followed all through their body of work, from prolific contemporary writers like Margaret Atwood and Philip Roth to cult figures like Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace to genre mainstays like P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. A particularly popular choice was Kurt Vonnegut, who attracts so many voracious young readers.

The lure of being a completist is a strong one. So why do  many of us linger within a handful of books of achieving our goal? Maybe we’re saving those final few books for a bad day (I can imagine myself reading a spate of secondary Wharton novels in the throes of some future period of gloom or illness) because we know we’ll be welcomed by the author’s signature prose style. Or maybe we know that a final book is supposed to be less than stellar, and we don’t want it to mar our reverence for the author. For instance, most of my friends are one or two books shy of being  J.K. Rowling completists. I never bothered with the second Robert Galbraith mystery because I heard it wasn’t as good as the first, while the plodding reputation of her “serious” novel The Casual Vacancy turned off many friends who have read all of her genre books.

Furthermore, if we’re reading for status, or for the chance to chat with our friends, a minor work by a beloved author won’t get us the value that switching to a major work by a new author might.

But if we do venture close enough to 100% territory, the rewards are many. We’ve forged  a trusted relationship with an author, enough to say that his or her minor works, failed attempts, and fragments are fascinating to us in their imperfection. To the completist or near-completist, non-masterpieces provide value in terms of what they reveal about a writer’s growth and evolution. Henry James and James Joyce are two authors whose prose style took giant leaps from early- to late-career books; we can watch their aesthetic evolve and flourish and maybe even go past peak in what feels like real time.

Futhermore, a broad survey of an author’s work offers a deeper understanding of the works we already like — reading Brontë’s The Professor, for instance,  is like reading a first draft of her masterpiece, Villette, a more playful, awkward exploration of the same themes and settings. In this way, one can discern the author’s obsessions, ruminations, and patterns, the moral questions that dog them for an entire lifetime. This inevitably makes us  more aware of their humanness, because what is obsession and repetition, circling and prowling over the same topics in new ways, if not extremely human behavior? We come to know that human better.

Death of the author, my eye. Becoming a completist makes a work’s creator more alive to us, establishing a rare and treasured kind of reader-author intimacy.