A few years ago, I was given a daunting task: I had to pick out five science fiction books to give to someone who was interested in, but had never read, SF. I was reminded of this just recently because Boskone is just around the corner. Also, David Brin recently printed his list of lists of must-read SF books. It's the kind of stuff late night convention-bar conversations and arguments are made of—it's hard to get definitive on a subject like that.
I eventually sent my friend a list of ten books, but gave her five of them to get started. I cannot for the life of me find that list (argh!), but I probably included: Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein (good intro to the role of technology and juvie fiction), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (hysterically funny and manages to make amazingly complex scientific and social ideas accessible--and if you've read my blogs, you probably already know I'd give it for every occasion, if allowed), Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (a future with no books?!), The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin (a little dystopia and a lot of what-if?), something (probably Burning Chrome) by William Gibson (gotta talk about cyberpunk). I might have thrown in Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, because I think for all its flaws, it's awesome, and some times you just need the awesome to get someone excited about a genre.
Although I can't find that list (argh!), I know I spent a lot of nights pondering it. Do I add in H.G. Wells? What about Asimov, of whom I'm not a huge fan, but who is so very important? Frankenstein counts, but does Dracula—why or why not? And somewhere in the discussion has to come Fantasy and Urban Fantasy—but where? It's not SF, but has an awful lot of similarities and connections...
Doing a top-ten personal list is hard enough, but doing a top-ten “must-read list” one for someone else? Well, that's a lot of pressure. You're standing up for a whole genre.
All this inevitably led me to think about mysteries. Someone you know doesn't read mysteries, and wants you to give them a list. Do you tackle it historically, from the Golden Age to last week's announced Edgar nominees? Do you freight it toward things the reader may like, hoping you'll sink the hook? Do you focus on critical and popular acclaim, so she'll have a working vocabulary at cocktail parties?
My first inclination is to write a series of lectures on the subject to get my head around the subject, which is, of course, why I'm no longer invited to parties. But even if I keep the lectures in my head (“Origins of Crime Fiction,” “The Golden Age of Mysteries,” “Pulp and Noir,” “Genre Fiction as a Reflection of Society,” “Women and Mystery,” “Batman vs. Sherlock Holmes”), pare down the reading list to under a hundred books and strip out all the commentary, it would still be a tough task. I might do it in ten books, but I'm not sure I'd ever be happy with it. I could do five or ten lists of five books, maybe.
So now, I'm thinking about how I'd set about beguiling that would-be mystery reader. The lists I'm starting with? The History of Mystery, The Golden Age, Hard Boiled and Pulp, Comfort Reads, Tough Detectives/Awesome Villains, and Other Stuff That Isn't Easily Categorized But You Should Read Because I Said So.
Gentle Readers: pick a category (or make up your own) and give me five names of books you'd use to woo the non-mystery reader. Go!