Sunday, November 9, 2008

Child's Play

One of the things you've got to admire about the English language is the way tightly related terms can have nuances that are fundamentally opposed.

For example, take "childlike" and "childish." (Okay, after a solid ten seconds of thought those were the only two that occurred to me; but, since they are what I thought of before I started this post, they'll do just fine.)

"Childlike" seems to have connotations of wonderment, innocence, and originality.

"Childish" reads as fussy, unable to cope with simple realities, and an unwillingness to adapt.

Both of them probably apply to writers.

Most small children I've known love to hear the same story over and over. Many of them can detect even the slightest deviation from the sacred text. And some of them seem to get more out of it each time, as if knowing what comes next enhances the intensity of the peak emotional moments, be they funny or tragic.

That's me. There are books I read again and again, and movies or stage productions that I'll immerse myself in until any sane person would wonder if I didn't have a serious problem. It's as well that I don't live in London or New York, as some long-running stage production would push me into destitution far quicker than an addiction to crack. Books at least have the advantage of being cheap and taking up huge spans of time, in which you are prevented from pursuing other addictive behaviors. I've read Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels, all 20 of them, three times through, and some of them more often. Let's not even discuss how many times I've read Tolkein's trilogy. Or Gatsby. Or The Sun Also Rises. Or Zelazny's Lord of Light. Or the usual suspects, like Pride and Prejudice. And the number of standalones I've read three and four times is embarrasing, if only because it indicates how many new books I'm not reading.

I like to think of it as "childlike" rather than "childish," but sometimes I wonder. I always assumed most writers had this habit, but lately I've met some who seldom re-read. I even know one who is a voracious reader but has almost no books in her house; she reads them and then sells them or gives them away, as she doesn't read books twice. (I don't think she's ever seen a movie twice, either.)

Tim Stretton refers to the books we revisit as "comfort books," and I see what he means. True, each time I revisit them, I come away with something new--either a deeper understanding of their genius, or a greater awareness of their failings (and many of the my favorite books have their failings, which should give hope to those of us who are flawed). But when I stop and consider rereading objectively, it strikes me as odd. With all those other books waiting to be read for the first time, why do I do it?


S. Boyd Taylor said...

I have tried many times to reread books. I've never been able to.

Other than the picture books I read as a child ("Where the Wild Things Are"), I've only once successfully re-read a book: I forced myself to reread "The Lord of the Rings" after the movies. Because the movies were so good -- and because all the other fantasy and sci fi authors love the series -- I thought I must've missed something the first time I read them when I was 14.

I was disappointed to find out that I still hated almost every minute of reading them.

Since then, I have tried to reread only one book: "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. It's perhaps the most brilliant novel I've ever read. However, I get about 50 pages in and I put it down and swear I'll come back and I never do.

Of course I do that with a lot of books the first time I read them too. Even truly exceptional books that I love -- like Naked Lunch -- I have failed to return to even during the first reading. And lord help the book if it isn't exceptional. I usually end up resenting the amount of paper it's been printed on.

(Of course everyone that reads this blog writes exceptional books! ;) )

I'm not sure what's going on in my head, but short stories seem to be my major source of reading material these days.

David Isaak said...

Hi, SBT--

Like I said, I've been meeting writers lately who seldom or never re-read. I don't know what's going on with that--but, then, I don't know what's going on with a people like me, either.

If I'm really impressed by a book, I'll almost always go through it again to try and understand how the writer achieved the effects. But that may just be a shortcoming on my part: If a book is pulling me through it with some degree of urgency, I don't seem to be able to notice the larger technical aspects. That is, I can pause to admire a turn of phrase or a particularly nice passage, but I can't really understand structure or pacing until I'm passing over the same ground a second time.

I have no excuse for my pervy tendency to do it a third time.

Jen Ster said...

I, too, have been known to reread the occasional book, though not The Lord of the Rings (I cheated, I listened to it on audiobook because I thought it was basically unreadable and still do). Aside from Buddhist texts and other religious material, though, I can count 'em on one hand; The Complete Calvin & Hobbes, Very Far Away from Anywhere Else by Ursula LeGuin, T.S.T.O. Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (favorite book ever) and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Hannah Green. I think I've read the last one thirty or forty times. It's so crammed with literary allusion that you sort of have to live a long time to get it. Every time I read it I get an aha moment - most recently realizing the sinister Dr. Hobbes was the philosopher Hobbes, as in Calvin and Hobbes, and - hey, I came full circle on that one, didn't I?

Movies, on the other hand - stopped counting with Star Wars at about 50, and Rocky Horror, forget it. Probably in the hundreds. The Edge (Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin) was on FMC Saturday night and I watched it twice through. Bart the Bear rocks!

Janet said...

How are you supposed to learn anything about craft if you don't look a second or third or fourth time? I'm currently re-re-reading Smiley's People and I'm much more impressed than I was the first time, for sure. And learning tons.

Plus, rereading truly great books is fun and satisfying and really beats reading a lot of crap for the first time.

There, have I covered all the bases? High-minded and yet utilitarian, lover of the arts for their own sake, self-indulgent...

I only buy a book to keep if I fulling intend on re-reading it. Everything else will get culled sooner or later.

A really great book will pull me in so powerfully the second and third and fourth reading that I come out still unaware of what techniques they used. That's when I develop a fervent belief in the power of osmosis.

And I'm willing to bet, Mr. Underhill, that I've read LOTR as many times as you, if not more. I'm about due, actually.

Alis said...

I rarely, if ever, read any books other than Harry Potter or the Terry Pratchett canon more than once. I mean to, I keep books rather than take them to Oxfam on the basis that I will read them again one day. And I know I won't even remember reading most of them for the first time.
I think there are two reasons for my non-rereading habit: one - I read very slowly so it feels like an unreasonable investment to go over something again; two - unlike the little people, I crave novelty in my reading entertainment!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

So, two anti-LOTR folks so far? Did you like the movies, or hate them too?

I read Rose Garden a zillion years ago. Maybe I should take a look at it again.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Well said.

Ah, yes, Le Carre is someone who can be reread for both pleasure and technique. Graham Greene, too, I think.

But it's interesting how personal all this is.

Jen Ster said...

Hey, I'm not anti-LOTR. It's an awesome tale. It just needed a better writer, that's all. Or it needed to be sung aloud in plainsong. It's a minor quibble. Go, Frodo, go!

Ps. It's pouring like a sumbitch here and we're under a tornado watch. What the hell? I thought it was November!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Though I ought to know better by now, it's always surprising to me how many writers write books quite different from those they most enjoy reading.

From "Testament," I wouldn't have immediately pegged you as a big Pratchett fan.

But who am I to talk? Thrillers constitute a minute portion of my reading diet.

Matt Curran said...

Hi David

I confess that I generally fall into the “read once category” for the precise reason you made at the end of the post. For me it’s all about time, or lack of it, and perhaps my impatient nature. There are so many books I want to read that revisiting a favourite feels neglectful. Time is short at the moment, and will get shorter next year – and as Flash Gordon might say (if he were bookish), “I’ve got thirty books to read before the Earth explodes” (or I become a dad for the first time).

David Isaak said...

Hey, Jen--

Weird weather abounds. It got into the high 80s here last week, which, depsite what the Chamber of Commerce would like people to believe, doesn't happen here in November.

We also had a huge windstorm, though not tornadoes or hurricanes. But I'm betting we'll get some of those some day, too.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

I've known a few people who became quite talented at dandling semi-sleeping infants with one arm and holding a book in the other. If they walked around while they did this, they could read and exercise and get some peace all at once.

As to the matter of books wtill left to read, I can only quote a "They Might Be Giants" song:

You're older than you've even been
And now you're even older--
And now you're even older--
And now you're even older--
You're older than you've even been
And now you're even older--
And now you're older still.

Is marching on--
And time
Is still marching on--

You're older than you've even been

(Well, you get the idea...)