In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, the main character Hazel is recommended a book series by the charming Augustus Waters. This recommendation is a novelization of a video game series. While reading, Hazel has an epiphany, “…I liked that his adventures kept happening. There were always more bad guys to kill and more good guys to save. New wars started even before the old ones were won. I hadn’t read a real series like that since I was a kid, and it was exciting to live again in an infinite fiction” (Green, 2014, p. 46).
This idea of an infinite fiction is intriguing to me. About twelve years ago, I got into comic books…deep into comic books…in so deep I may never see the walls of my house not covered in bookshelves. It started with House of M, which is set in an alternate, self-contained universe. This made for a good jumping-off point, and plunge I did! Everything I read foreshadowed and set up events that were yet to come or referenced events that had already happened. House of M began when Scarlet Witch lost control of her powers after she became distraught over losing her children. This happened after a long sequence of complex events that have been going on since the 1940s and will continue in perpetuity. The story will never end so, to continue moving it forward, the events of the past need to be altered a bit for certain interactions to work properly. Everything I’ve already read so far could be redefined in a single issue. It is an infinite fiction.
Now, just because a fictional universe has been spinning for nearly 80 years doesn’t mean everything that is put to print is a gem. I am a devotee of all things comics. I will gladly read things that I know are terrible because I have a need to complete what I start, and something in what seems like garbage at the moment may prove important in a larger story someday. I actually feel that occasionally reading something terrible cleanses your palate and makes you appreciate the well-written works all the more.
Series, comic and non-comic alike, are everywhere today. The number of dystopian teen trilogies with savior-like main characters stuck in a love triangle is frightening. They also are among the most read books in my library—by teens and adults. Even when the series seems forcibly stretched into three parts with a plot in the second volume that really drags, books one and two have waiting lists as soon as book three comes out.
I’ve discussed this phenomenon with my coworker Emily. She finds comfort in series, and she claims that reading a sequel or follow-up book is like being reunited with an old friend. There have been times when she has finished a limited comic book series (one that was meant from the start to have a beginning, middle, and end), and she wants more. She wanted an infinite fiction, but it wasn’t meant to be. Are we meant to know everything about every character? What happens to the characters after the book ends? Some are so enamored with extending fictions a little further that they’ve added on to classic stories with unauthorized sequels.
When it comes to kids and teens, series bring a sense of familiarity and systematic storytelling. I was the prime target audience when R.L. Stine hit the publishing scene with Goosebumps when I was in fifth grade. Even though they were not what I would consider great books, I continued to read them after I had passed the recommended reading age. I found comfort in the repetitive plotlines, which echoes Emily’s opinions on series.
What is sad for me now, as an adult, is when a fan becomes disillusioned with their favorite series—when the magic of infinity fades away to the drone of monotony. There is a family that I have known almost from the day I started at the library. The children are all boys and all readers, which has particularly impressed me. It was the oldest, Tom, who became cynical first. He was diligently reading Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series, one by one. They are nicely numbered on the spine, so you know exactly which one you need to get next. It was wonderful… until Tom discovered there was a formula to the books. Event A happens, followed by Event B, a Side Quest happens, capped with a Happy Ending. He didn’t verbalize it quite like that, but he definitely saw the formula and knew what would essentially happen in every book. I got the sense that he was slightly heartbroken about this discovery. There were more books in the series, but he didn’t want to continue. He was reading a series that now was too easy for him, so he moved on to something at his level such as Erin Hunter’s Warriors or Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. As he continues to mature as a reader, he may have epiphanies about these other books as well.
Series are a big part of the publishing world, and they likely will not be going away soon. There are many people who will read a book only if it has follow-ups, and some will only read a book once the series is complete. I personally love series, but I recognize that many have served their purpose and further explorations of the characters are unnecessary. I recognize that lots of kids gravitate toward a series because it is self-guiding. They read book 1, then book 2, and so on. It is sad when kids stop reading the books that they once loved, but that’s why we (as librarians and literary guidance folks) are there: to put new books into their eager hands. I enjoy the infinite fictions that I’m reading currently, and I hope I never see the wall at the end of that infinity.