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The purpose of this question is to get a clear policy about questions.

There have been instances where reading order questions have been closed because "there doesn't seem to be any connection between the different... novels", such as the question What order should I read Thomas Pynchon's novels in? This creates problems because it's not exactly clear what qualifies as a connection between the different novels. For example, the question https://literature.stackexchange.com/q/1783/111 isn't about books in the same series, but some community members have argued that the question is on-topic because the books revolve around a common theme.

What is the criteria for whether reading order questions are on-topic?

  • Also, please excuse any typos or unclear sentences; I can't seem to write clearly tonight. – user111 Feb 22 '17 at 3:58
16

Don't ask for a recommended reading order, ask for things that inform a choice of reading order

Let me back up a bit. Why do people want to ask about reading order in the first place? In 99% of the cases, you can't possibly go wrong with publication order. This is the order hundreds, thousands or millions of people (had to) read the texts when they were first released and in most cases this is also the order the author initially wanted people to experience them in. Publication order is usually easily determined by a quick glance at Wikipedia or some other source and doesn't require an "expert" answer on Stack Exchange (exception could be older works where the publication order might not be well documented).

This means that when people ask for a reading order of a set of books, they must have some reason to assume that there must be other factors which make deviating from publication order a good idea. Common reasons include:

  • Publication order does not correspond to the chronological order of the plot. This is commonly the case when prequels are written later or when gaps in the story are filled in.
  • Texts may be published in a different order than they were written. It's reasonable to assume (but not necessarily the case), that following this more "natural" order will lead to better reading experience.
  • This usually but not always goes hand in hand with the first point, but multiple texts surrounding the same story often spoil or foreshadow each others' plot twists. By changing the reading order, one might be able to enhance the suspense and satisfaction of plot twists. A popular example of this from the world of movies is Machete order for watching Star Wars.
  • Sometimes multiple tangentially related stories are being told throughout several books. Do you read one story first and then the other? Do you interleave them in publication other? Do the stories intersect at important points in the plots due to which the books should ideally be interleaved in a different order?

I think that in all of these cases, we can craft better questions and answers if we just ask directly about the thing that makes us think that publication order might not be the best. "What is the best order to read X in?" is a fairly vague, broad and potentially very subjective question. However, all of the following are answerable questions, that help the asker make an informed decision about the reading order themselves:

  • What is the chronological order of the books in the X series?
  • What order were X's novels written in?
  • Can the books set in the X universe be split into separate subseries and how do those interrelate?

Such questions would result in useful content that people can use to find a recording according to their own preferences. Note that popular answers to existing reading order questions don't necessarily present a reading order. But they give the asker all the relevant information to pick out their own order without the risk of spoilers and with the chance to enhance their reading experience.

I want to make clear that I'm not advocating a blanket ban on reading order questions. The Harper Lee question is an example of a very useful and evidently answerable question about an optimal reading order. But what makes it a good question is that it focuses on the reason why one might deviate from publication order. If you don't provide that reason in the question, you might just end up with an answer that is essentially "publication order, duh", but if you do that gives answerers a basis for telling you why one or the other might be better.

Another thing that came up in chat is asking questions about a specific reading order. Again, I think these can be good questions, if they want to discuss the merits of a certain order in way that falls into the scope of literary analysis. Going back to the example of Machete order (although it's not a literary example, it helps to illustrate the point), I could imagine the following question being answered in a way that is no more subjective than any other literary analysis:

  • How does Machete order improve the plot of Star Wars by reordering the major plot twists of the story?

If we make reading-order questions about the reasons to deviate from publication order, and try to focus on the underlying information that would make someone choose and a different, then this will automatically eliminate reading-order questions about works where reading order is arbitrary (because all works are completely independent) or should necessarily be publication order (because each work builds on the previous one).

  • I agree overall, but "what order were X's novels written in" is a lazy question that could be answered by visiting Wikipedia. – Kevin Troy Feb 22 '17 at 22:17
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    @KevinTroy could it? Just to be clear, the order they were written in is not necessarily the order they were published in. I'm referring specifically to cases where these two don't match up and the writing order is often not common knowledge (and may even be ambiguous when authors work on multiple works in parallel). – Martin Ender Feb 22 '17 at 22:21
  • I should have said "Google." I just checked the Wikipedia page for Jane Austen -- a good example of an author whose publication vs writing order is quite different. The Wiki contains the information, but that info is laid out much more concisely on an austen.com page that was the top result for the Google search "jane austen order." So yeah, I still think that (in most cases) questions about writing order won't show much effort on the asker's part. – Kevin Troy Feb 22 '17 at 23:17
  • @KevinTroy this can be the case for any of those questions. In some cases the information will already be readily available on the internet, but in others it might not be the case and it might be hard or impossible to find a resource that has already compiled all the available information. Especially if it's not concerning an author as important and well-studied as Jane Austen. – Martin Ender Feb 22 '17 at 23:19
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Reading order questions are a chance for us to offer practical, experience-based advice on how best to approach specific sections of the material this site is about. Obviously they should adhere to good subjective, of course, and should support their solutions clearly by explaining why and how the suggested reading order is a good one. But I'm honestly kind of baffled at the pushback against having questions that are so well-fitted to this site.

In the interests of optimising for pearls, not sand, we would expect these questions to specify why the querent suspects the reading order of that particular group of works is non-obvious/non-trivial. To avoid collecting answers that aren't actionable solutions to the querent's problem we would close such questions as unclear or too broad--same as with any other kind of question.

And to be clear, reading order is not reading recommendation. Asking the order one should read a set implies that one has already chosen to read the set--so it's not shopping and the primary reasons shopping questions are bad (both open-ended and quickly dated) don't transfer.

We just have to expect the same level of quality from reading-order questions and answers that we do from every other subjective question, and this will become a small but valuable subset of our site's content.

  • An observation: your example very clearly is a reading recommendation. But, it's a very well-defined, well-scoped one. – Standback Feb 22 '17 at 12:49
  • @Standback Then perhaps I'm not familiar with all the existing discourse on reading recommendations. Got a link? – BESW Feb 22 '17 at 12:52
  • No, I just mean: it's literally a request for a reading recommendation. It's a literal request to recommend what book to read. – Standback Feb 22 '17 at 13:15
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    As we've since discussed in chat, it's not. The question is clearly communicating an existing intent to read the entire series, making it a "how to read" rather than a "what to read" question. I think this is a threshold concept in the discussion: there's a difference between "which book in [set of books I might read] should I read" and "which book in [set of books I will read] should I read first." – BESW Feb 22 '17 at 14:25
  • Agreed. We spoke extensively in chat, which I found extremely helpful and edifying. Still not sold, but not opposed anymore. I jave more questions and expect we'll chat further :-) – Standback Feb 22 '17 at 17:16
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I think posts should be in-scope if there is reason to assume that there should be an order to read books in.

The easiest case is obviously where all the books are in the same universe. However, that is not the only case. If it can be argued that several books build toward a theme, together, then it's reasonable to assume that there might be a recommended order in which the books should be read. Therefore, I believe that my question about Ayn Rand's stories is in-scope for Literature.

I am not familiar with the works of Thomas Pynchon, but the question does not tell us why there should be an accepted order in reading his works, and so should be closed not as off-topic, but rather as "unclear what you're asking" or "primarily opinion based." (At least, until a basis for the assumption of a reading order is added. If/when that happens, that post should be reopened.)

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    Are you saying that question askers just have to present an argument (even if it's a bad argument) that there should be an ideal order to read the books in? Or is there some sort of criteria that the argument has to fulfill? – user111 Feb 22 '17 at 4:17
  • If the books are really building towards a theme, then wouldn't the only relevant order be creation time? It makes no sense for a later book to be behind an older one in terms of "building towards a theme". – muru Feb 22 '17 at 4:20
  • I'm not sure about that, @muru. Sometimes when I write an essay, for example, I will write one paragraph earlier than another, but might ultimately decide to place it at a later point in the essay because my argument is made more clearly that way – Shokhet Feb 22 '17 at 4:23
  • @Shokhet false analogy. We're talking books here, which already go through several iterations of the switching you speak of before publishing. Can you show a concrete example of what you're saying happening in books? – muru Feb 22 '17 at 4:24
  • @Hamlet I'm not sure. The quality of the argument may have to ultimately be left to the close-voters; I'm not sure I could craft a set of rules that will quantify an argument as "good." ...perhaps just "an argument" will suffice to make a question on-topic, and if citizens with CV rights think it's no good, they will close as "unclear what you're asking." What do you think? – Shokhet Feb 22 '17 at 4:28
  • @muru I'm not sure if this was the author's intent, but take my question about Ayn Rand as an example. Her works do all build toward her philosophy, but publishing order might not be the best one. I think that Anthem should be read first, and it's second in publishing order among the works I mention in that post. I could also understand an argument that Atlas Shrugged should be read before The Fountainhead, even though TF preceded AS by 14 years. – Shokhet Feb 22 '17 at 4:32
  • @Shokhet why? How do you benefit from regressing in this "building towards philosophy" bit? That is, why read a book more advanced in the path to said philosophy and then going back if you're looking to build towards it? That's directly in contradiction to building anything. – muru Feb 22 '17 at 4:34
  • @muru Note also that author's intent matters less than what is best for the readers. Perhaps a better analogy would have been my brother's essay, whose paragraphs were written in whatever order he thought best, but I can show would be more easily understood if read in a different order. (This comment was written before I saw your most recent one, but actually fits rather nicely where it is in the comment timeline) – Shokhet Feb 22 '17 at 4:35
  • In other words, who said that the book published later is more advanced? @muru – Shokhet Feb 22 '17 at 4:36
  • @Shokhet "created" later. If an author wrote book Y after X, then the writing of X and subsequent events influenced the author, and therefore influenced the writing of Y. By being partially a result of X, Y has to be more advanced in the path. That is, any Y without X wouldn't have been Y, but a different work. – muru Feb 22 '17 at 4:40
  • Which is to ask... How do you benefit from regressing on this path that the author took? – muru Feb 22 '17 at 4:41
  • @muru Let's say I wrote a book about computer programming for professionals, and then later realized that the concepts were inaccessible to most lay people. I then write a For Dummies book about programming. Would you tell someone who never programmed before that they should start reading all (two) books of mine on programming in the order they were published? – Shokhet Feb 22 '17 at 4:43
  • I'll admit, the essay examples were stupid. – Shokhet Feb 22 '17 at 4:44
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    I would strongly object to the idea that a question cannot be judged as on- or off-topic until you see whether a good, substantial, well-argued answer is provided. Or that a question is on-topic on the assumption that a good answer might possibly exist. Not for a whole class of questions (that's been very problematic in the past). If a month goes by with no good answer, do you close it? You still might get a good answer, eventually, if one exists. – Standback Feb 22 '17 at 6:52
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    And so Shokhet suggests that the OP also justify faith in a reading order. Which makes sense. OTOH, the idea of "building towards themes" in a body of work can really turn it into a reading recommendation question. There are as many conceivable questions, as conceivable themes in a body of work. – Standback Feb 22 '17 at 6:55
-2

I think there are actually two classes of questions that might both be asked as "reading order" questions:

  1. Questions about linked series of books (or plays, poems, etc.). These are the types of reading/viewing order questions we're used to seeing on SFF. For these it's clear that there is some factual basis for answers that's verifiable in some way (e.g. publication order, chronological order of events within universe, etc.).

  2. Questions that might also be phrased "where do I start with author X?" (Or genre Y, or national literary tradition Z, etc.). These are cases where there's not necessarily a "within universe" connection between the works, but the prospective reader is simply trying to figure out how to tackle a monumental body of work and get a good introduction to its themes and tropes.

Now, for case #2, a lot of "primarily opinion-based" bells might be ringing there. But I believe that, at least in some cases, a well-researched answer could be supported by evidence. For example, if the question were asking for a reading order of Shakespeare's plays, an answer might provide an overview of which plays are typically covered in an Intro to Shakespeare course, based on a sampling of college syllabi.

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    I'm a little bit worried about #2, since it sounds suspiciously like recommendation questions, which are very much off topic. – user111 Feb 22 '17 at 5:30
  • I agree with @Hamlet on this. "Where do I start" is exactly the same as a reading-rec. It's just a specific type of reading rec, is all. – Standback Feb 22 '17 at 7:36
  • @Hamlet for a concrete example of #2, there's my literature.stackexchange.com/q/361/168 (if it gets closed, so be it, I don't intend to defend it vigorously) – muru Feb 22 '17 at 8:50
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I would propose:

On-topic requests will ask for an ordering according a well-defined, non-subjective criteria.

Here I'm thinking of things like:

  • Publication order: "In what order were the Narnia books published?"
  • Order by the internal chronology within the fiction: "What is the chronological order of the Narnia books?"
  • Writing order: "Jane Austen's books were not published in the order they were written; in what order did Austen originally write them?"
  • Identification and ordering of sub-series:"Which Discworld books have the Witches in them?", or "What are the various sub-series of the Discworld books?").

For large, intricate series, I think requesting a reading guide to a series makes for a great question -- based on chronology, subseries, a common element ("What are all the Dragonlance stories with Raistlin in them, by the fictional chronology?"). As long as a well-defined criteria for the guide is given, I think this falls within the bounds I've described here.


There might be other well-defined orderings that could be asked about; this can't be an exhaustive list.

But I would like to see reading-order questions nudged towards asking for a particular order - publishing, chronological, etc, rather than just asking "What order should I read this in?". I think it would be much clearer to have one question for publication order and a separate one for chronological order, than to have those be two different, contrasting answers to the same question, with vote-counts implying that one of these is "better" or "more correct" than the other.


Which is one part of a larger observation: requesting subjective suggestions for reading order, is exactly the same as asking for a reading recommendation. It may be a limited, well-scoped, well-defined reading recommendation, but it still boils down to "what do you recommend that I read," which we have firmly come down against.

This is the case whether the question is "What volumes of this series are essential and which can I skip"; or "What ordering of this author's works will best make me appreciate his themes and ideas"; or "I know the publication and chronology orders, but maybe you have a different reading order that makes reading the series really fantastic." These are all great things to discuss, but they are very poor Stack Exchange questions, and will have all the problems we're trying to avoid with reading recommendations.

Effectively, my position is that requesting lists, orderings, subgroups of books is fine; requesting recommendations for reading order is just another recommendation quetion.

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    Okay, that makes the answer much clearer. I'm not sure I agree with it, but I've deleted my comments and retracted my downvote for now while I make up my mind about this. – Martin Ender Feb 22 '17 at 10:10
  • @MartinEnder : Thanks for helping me clarify it. :) The discussion helped me realize that I was proposing rather more than I was originally saying. – Standback Feb 22 '17 at 10:12
  • I think my main issue with this suggestion is that "Order by the internal chronology within the fiction." isn't as simple as it sounds for larger works where multiple stories are being told in the same universe. In these cases, a reading order isn't necessarily a total ordering, meaning that there will be some books (or subseries) that do require a certain order, but which can be read independently of other books. You address this in your last point, but extracting individual subseries fails to give people the "big picture" and indicate where those subseries to overlap each other. [ctd.] – Martin Ender Feb 22 '17 at 10:23
  • Two examples that come to mind are the Discworld which you've already mentioned (1, 2) and Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere (1). I think it's important to have a place for more elaborate reading guides like this that really show where the individual subseries merge, split and cross paths. Splitting the universe into multiple question along subseries doesn't really help people figure out where it makes sense to interleave reading of those subseries. – Martin Ender Feb 22 '17 at 10:23
  • I'm happy to continue this discussion in chat. – Martin Ender Feb 22 '17 at 10:23
  • I think "What are the various distinct subseries of [series X]?" is fine, under this proposal. I think that kind of question, or the chronology question, both could elicit the kind of reading guide you're describing -- and can request it much more specifically and explicitly, than a generic "what reading order do you suggest?" question would. – Standback Feb 22 '17 at 10:31
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All of them should be on topic.

Look. Most questions are by people who don't know anything about the books. They want to know how to read them.

Let's take a few examples.

If someone wants to know what order to read 's books1 then great - they're all in the same universe, and there is a good order to read them in.

However, if someone wants to know what order to read 's plays, which don't, AFAIK, have a specific order, then post an answer that says that it doesn't matter.

Essentially, questions want to know how to read them. If there is a specific answer, perfect! Tell them what order. If, however, there isn't a specific answer, then also perfect! Tell them the answer - that it doesn't matter.


1Blatant self promotion.

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    What that's going to do is encourage lots of pointless questions, to which the answer is "It doesn't matter." Because it's an easy ask, it's on topic, it'll get you a few points of rep, because everybody else is doing it, because maybe this one will have an amazing answer I never anticipated. I don't think we want to go down that road. – Standback Feb 22 '17 at 8:44
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    "If most of those are terrible questions with little to no indication that I'd be wasting my time by reading them, the value proposition of visiting and participating is diminished: I have better things to do." We should be optimizing for pearls; not for sand. – Standback Feb 22 '17 at 8:44
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    @Standback - in that case, maybe only allow reading order questions for books by one author or have a known connection. – Mithrandir Feb 22 '17 at 8:50
  • All the examples you gave were single-author ones. I'm saying that "What order should I read [author X]'s books in", for every author in existence, is something I'd rather not be a feature of the site. – Standback Feb 22 '17 at 9:07

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