The Netflix model has entered the world of books in varying degrees. We have Book Lamp and Kindle Unlimited, but even traditional publishing has tried a more rapid-release approach, which has traded on a new phrase: “binge-reading.” I first came across the term when I learned of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, which was/will be released in three installments during February, May and September of 2014.
Binge-reading struck me as a cute, if not shameless, attempt at boarding the television-streaming bandwagon. Name aside, its execution intrigued me: When we have a popular fantasy author with an equally popular HBO adaptation who takes five years to write admittedly long and dense books, the concept of an entire franchise being released faster than a pregnancy cycle seems utterly foreign. But I totally forgot what happened in Veronica Roth’s Divergent when its sequel, Insurgent, was released a year later; the same memory lapse occurred to a greater extent when the third book, Allegiant, came out after another year and some months had passed. So perhaps the idea of “binge-reading” had legs.
I enjoyed reading the first two books of the Southern Reach Trilogy, both of which I consumed fairly quickly. They’re short but dense, weird as hell and don’t go where you expect them to. The first volume, Annihilation, read as a quasi-abstract adventure horror, following a team of female explorers investigating a bizarre nature compound. Its sequel, Authority, pulls the curtain back to focus on the government organization that dispatches said expeditions. It’s more of a conspiracy theory thriller than its predecessor, but the two still feel grown from the same stem. I’m not sure what form the conclusion Acceptance will resemble, but I’m eager to snag it upon publication.
Having read enough trilogies where each installment feels all too similar to their predecessors, I found these books as original as they were addicting. The appeal to the rapid-release might’ve made some degree of sense. Each book was a piece to a puzzle, and sure enough, series editor Sean McDonald of Farrar, Straus & Giroux reported that the release strategy played into that, saying, “We wanted to make sure people knew that there were answers to these questions.”
Yet, with time came clarity. I was pleased to have access to these books so quickly, but my experience wouldn’t have changed if they were released years apart versus months. A heat wave found me avoiding my apartment, instead cooped up in a bar where I read nearly all of Annihilation in one sitting. Knowledge that its sequel was coming in a few months wouldn’t have changed that. In an era obsessed with franchises, adaptations and splitting final volumes into multiple movies, wouldn’t spacing out the books help create buzz and generate a phenomenon? If the three Hunger Games books were released all within a few months, would they have left as big of an impression or just served as a summer fling?
I realize that, semantically, binge-reading isn’t meant to be a perfect parallel to television, but it’s still an unnecessary one. Netflix pushing a whole season at once breaks the norm of weekly episodes. I still haven’t finished the latest season of Orange is the New Black yet (I’m close!), but at least I can catch up while cooking dinner or doing laundry, and I can Tinder during Larry-plots. With books, you can’t do that. With books, reading is absolutely an active process.
I’m spending this weekend curled up with We are Not Ourselves and coffee, but when I write that, I’m not saying, “I’m binge-reading that new book everyone’s talking about.” I’m just following that ancient practice of reading a book.