This past week, I was listening to an episode of the Tosche Station podcast, and one of the participants was talking about Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkorsigan Saga. The discussion turned at one point to the whether they were reading it in chronological order or publication order.
This general question has bugged me since the mid-1990s, when Harper Collins gained the rights to The Chronicles of Narnia from Macmillan. Harper switched the numbering of the series to follow the story's internal chronological order, putting The Magician's Nephew as the first book, instead of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Narnia books were some of the first that I read voraciously as a kid. I grew up with Macmillan's chronology, which was based on the books' publication dates.
The change of order bothered me. It didn't seem right, and I have never been able to come up with a good reason as to why. Maybe it is simply that I am used to reading the books in the order they were published, and I have a tough time with change and new things. In general, though (and listening to the podcast discussion of the Bujold books, which I have never read), I tend to think that it makes more sense to read book series in the order in which they were written or published.
As I listened to the Tosche Stations crew and thought more about this question, I was reminded of one of my pet peeves from TV and movie storytelling over the last ten years. When I am watching a TV show or a movie and the story jumps around in time—e.g., the "72 hours earlier…"-after-a-cold-opening trope—I get annoyed. I am immediately distracted and pulled out of the story, wondering what the director and writers are trying to hide. Maybe there are legitimate storytelling reasons to hop around in time, but mostly this tactic makes me suspicious that the writers are trying hide a mundane and/or uninteresting characters with narrative trickery (This Is Us, I'm looking at you here…).
But wait, I thought—am I being inconsistent? If I am immediately skeptical of a story jumping around in time, shouldn't I feel the same way about the order in which I read book series? Part of what I like about reading a series in publication order is finding out the backstory of characters and events I already know, as well as the the sometimes surprising reveals. How is this justification any different than a TV show that jumps back in forth in the timeline to deliberately obscure plot points and heighten tension and viewer interest?
I feel like there is a real difference between the two, but I am having a tough time figuring out exactly what it is. Perhaps part of it is that a book series is a string of long-form works, the creation of which is spread out over time. When we read them in the order in which they were created, we are carried along with the author as s/he discovers and builds the story. However, that explanation runs into conflict wiht another belief of mine—that authorial intent is irrelevant, that the primary (only?) meaningful relationship in a text is that between the text and the reader/viewer. At a pure storytelling level, why does it matter to me what the creation process was?
Clearly, I do not have an answer here. However, I do know that I still prefer to read books in order of publication. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the first Narnia book, damn it, and that's just how it is.