Book series have been around for a long time. It is safe to say that they have never been more popular than they are today. Lately, I have been thinking about how some books that are parts of larger series do not work as stand-alone novels. This leads me to ask additional questions. Are there are some books that should not even be considered individual novels? When a book series comprises such novels, is it more accurate to consider the entire series as one work? Are some books so incapable of standing alone that they are really only half books, or one-third books, or one-quarter books?
Books that are in series or connected books go back to ancient times. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad are connected stories. There are many more Greek and Roman myths that can be considered as part of larger mega-tales that contain shared characters and situations. Similarly, the Bible as well as the Hindu Holy Books tell connected stories.
Many consider François Rabelais’s The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, originally written in five books, to be the first series written in the modern style. A little later, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixotewas comprised of two separate books written years apart.
Later came Author Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, which pioneered a lot of concepts and was enormously influential in terms of what followed. Many other mystery series followed. Fictional detectives created by writers such as Agatha Christie were featured in multiple books. Some mystery series have expanded into dozens of books written over the course of decades.
Since the 1980s, the number of series in science fiction and fantasy genres have exploded. Recently, while looking through recent Hugo and Nebula award winners, I had trouble finding books that were not part of larger series.
JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of The Ring Seriesis a good example of a series composed of books that cannot really stand alone. To make any sense, they really need to be read together. It can be argued that they were originally separated because the length of the series was so long. Many people really look at The Lord of The Rings as a single work anyway.
There are many other series where the answer to the question that I raised is not clear cut, however. Frank Herbert’s Original Dune can clearly stand as an individual work. However, its sequels really cannot abide an independent existence. With examples such as this, it gets tricky. Many people consider the Dunesequels inferior works. For the record, I like the Dune sequels written by Herbert himself a lot, though they do not match the original. I would not suggest that they be included in the science-fiction masterpiece that is the first book. Yet, I believe them to be very good science fiction that just cannot stand on their own.
Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire gets really interesting. Most of the books in the series can exist as stand-alone novels. However, the last two books, The Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset, are really not independent books. The Last Chronicle of Barset is a mixture of threads connected to the earlier works. In my opinion, it is a very high-quality work. I think that it was the second-best book of Barsetshires. Trollope himself thought that it was the best of the series. Yet, a reader just jumping into this book might be befuddled and miss much of its emotional impact. How can this novel be evaluated? I would also add that while Barchester Towers, the second book in the series, can work fine as a stand-alone, reading its predecessor, The Warden,first, strengthens its artistic merits. I use Trollope’s series as an example, but similar issues arise withy many series.
One can say that all of this does not matter and that one should just read and enjoy books. This is true, but I think that all this is relevant when discussing and reviewing books. I also find the topic very interesting.
Thinking about all this, I conclude the following: Series comprising of books that really cannot stand independently, such as The Lord of The Rings, should just be considered as one single book. In addition, a stand-alone work is a stand-alone work, thus books like Dune should always be considered stand alones. The same is true for the first four books of the Chronicles of Barsetshire; they are stand alones. However, when a book is connected to others in a series, the entire series should also be considered one work, even if the series contains individual stand-alone novels. No matter their artistic merit, books looks likeThe Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset do not work as independent novels.
No system of classifying books and book series is perfect. There are also countless variations on the examples that I have mentioned that raise their own questions. Nor is it critical that books are looked at in such a systematic way. I think that this is an interesting thought exercise though. Despite the thoughts that I outlined above, some of the questions that I raised here really do not have answers.
Sequels to human stories are almost as old as stories themselves. Only one thing is for sure, and that is that people will continue to create sequels and series, regardless of how they are classified. We cannot get enough of great stories and great characters. We keep wanting more.