03 Oct 1994 12:00

All readers, in the course of their lives, accumulate lists of authors, of people whose books are judged to be reliably good (if not strictly reliable). These lists are, from one angle, a reflection of the reader's mind, and from another angle a heuristic for the (NP?) problem of deciding what books to read. I don't have to say which is more interesting. (But if it turns out the computational angle is publishable --- and it's astonishing what is --- I won't turn down citation.) The list of authors grows with the reader, like a shell --- but not beautifully regular nautilus shells people think of; something much more spiky and irregular. Sometimes authors are shed, they drop off through dis-use, and perhaps over-all shrinkage; sometimes they are grown out of and burst. The case I find most sad is when the only way to retain affection for them is to not read them, to seal off that compartment and let the dust settle. (As I've said before, I'm sentimental.) The accumulation begins almot as soon as a serious interest in books --- say when a nine-year-old stumbles upon the science fiction in his parents' basement.

A certain metamorphosis takes place when one begins to write seriously, for (as Robert Hughes says) ``every writer carries in his or her mind an invisible tribunal of dead writers... from [whose] unenforceable verdict there is no appeal.'' At this point, too, a certain mania for completeness may develop: after reading one book --- sometimes just one story or essay --- by an author, its victim is seized with a compulsion to read everything from the same hand. This can be quite tiresome.