Saturday, October 17, 2009

Good Books and Rereadable Books

I'm a big rereader, and there are books I return to again and again.

I won't try to sort out why I'm this way, as I don't know, and sorting it out might confront me with some unflattering truths. (Such as the fact that I have the emotional make-up of a five-year-old, and want to hear the same story over and over.)

But what puzzles me is that there are books I greatly enjoyed and admired that I feel no urge to revisit. Most of the Pynchon canon, for example. Ditto Jean Rhys. Much of Nabokov (although I expect to reread Lolita and some of the short stories a few more times before I go to that great library in they sky). I'm reading At Swim-Two-Birds right now, and having a great time, but despite that I doubt that it will land on my To Read stack again.

You might be tempted to remark that of course these are literary fiction, and therefore challenging rather than comforting, or some similar bit of reasoning. Nope, that's not it. I find much of Evelyn Waugh, and Robertson Davies, and John Barth, and Donald Barthelme, and several others, to call to be reread. Heck, I even want to revisit John Hawkes at times, and he's just plain difficult. (And Gatsby and Sun Also Rises get reread, but that goes without saying; and, in any case, both of them are easy reading as well as instruction manuals on craft.)

It isn't a literary thing. I once cheerfully read Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles, but doubt I'll take them off the shelf again. Yet I've plowed through O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels more times than I care to admit. And, sure, O'Brian is a far greater writer--one you can read for the sheer joy of his prose--but that's not the key. I've also read Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy a few times, and expect to read it again...even though no one would ever mistake Asimov for a master of prose, and even though his characters are largely interchangeable, not only within a given novel, but between completely different books.

I think Alan Furst is brilliant, but I can't imagine I'd reread his novels. Some of James Ellroy, on the other hand, calls out for multiple perusals. Chandler, I want to reread. Hammett, not so much. How come? Dunno.

There's a third category here, too: Books I reread because I foolishly read them too young the first time around. In the last few years, this has included Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I was absorbed in them when I read them in my youth, but they were beyond me in many ways. Having reread them, I might or might not reread them again. Depends on how long I live, I suppose.

Come to think of it, there's a fourth category, nostalgia books. Here I'd place Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. Possibly Poe. (And possibly not. Poe is confusing. When you're young you think he's marvelous because he's so shocking, morbid, and gloomy. Get a little older, and the excesses of the language seem a bit silly. Get older yet, and you see that those excesses were carefully crafted, and that they author is winking at you from between the lines. I veer from thinking I've outgrown him to thinking I'm finally catching up with him, and expect a few more of these cycles over the coming decades.) These books are like visiting the old neighborhood, and it's hard not to be comforted by them.

I'm glad I don't have to try to justify my preferences under cross-examination, because many of the books I value are books I don't care to read again, and some of the books I choose to reread don't have clear and obvious virtues. When it comes down to it, I have no idea why I read what I read in the first place, much less a second time around.

No wonder the publishers and booksellers are always nervous. If I'm any kind of example of the public, they have good reason to wonder what the hell people could be thinking.


Tim Stretton said...

Re-reading favourites for me:

Jack Vance (of course...) & Austen.

For me, whether I re-read a book or not is largely dependent on voice. Plot rapidly becomes tiresome (although the plot of "Emma" is an endless delight) but it's much harder to exhaust the pleasures of a favourite voice.

I'm sure O'Brian will join the list, but he's still a relatively recent discovery for me; I think he needs to mature awhile before re-reading.

E. Crandall said...

First off, I must confess that I am a sucker for the intricacies surrounding coincidences. After all, it is a series of mundane coincidences that has me responding to this very blog. That is, of course, unless you are inclined towards the dramatic and divine explanation-- fate. I prefer coincidences as they aren't nearly as messy as the conceptualized idea of fate.

Anyway, to be perfectly honest, I was searching for a place in my city that will be getting Kurt Vonnegut's posthumously published short fiction collection, Look at the Birdie. Somehow the key words directed me to this page. Go figure.

I am 27 and have only become enthralled with literature a few years ago. However, the first author in which I became invested in was none other than the man behind At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O'Brien. I started with The Third Policeman before getting to The Dalkey Archive, and the aforementioned At Swim-Two-Birds. I enjoyed all three of them but The Third Policeman is the only one that I would ever likely reread.

Also, you gave mention to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by the greatest satirist of the the past 200 years, Mark Twain. His study, where he did his writing, literally sits a block from where I am currently sitting and his burial site just a few blocks further, here in Elmira, NY. It was an earlier blog post quoting Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove character, Elmira Johnson, which must have sent me to this page. Go figure.

Surely just coincidences, but now I feel obliged to purchase your book.

But to your actual post...

I think I can say quite safely that I am in the minority when it comes to literature aficionados in that I don't ever reread books. Even the most treasured and influential books in my collection. In my case, it is due to one of two reasons-- either it wasn't good enough the first time around, or, contrarily, the unfounded fear that it won't be as good after another reading. As if the wonder and mystique will wear off if I read it again.

There are, however, books that I have no interest in rereading even though they were good. James Joyce, for instance, is someone that I am glad to have read but have no interest in revisiting. On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut (second greatest American satirist)is an author whom I would love to read over and over again. His prose is simple and fluid and does not waste paper with unnecessary loquaciousness-- a perfect recipe for rereading. But in the end it comes down to only ONE thing: enjoyment. If you enjoy rereading a book then that is the only justification needed.

Does evaluating the readability of a book the second time around impact the overall grade of the book?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Well, I've reread the Lyonesse trilogy, and most of the Dying Earth stories/novels, but not much else of Vance. Austen is always a joy to return to (I have a friend who reads P&P every year). You're right that the voice has to be simpatico. Thee's an eusive something beyond that, though.

I discovered O'Brian in the early 1990s, so I've had some time to revisit. I truly think he's an author who needs to be read at least twice--once just to marvel at how he handles language. Unlike many outstanding literary craftsmen, he seems to be having such fun.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Eric (no, not a lucky guess--I hopped over to your blog).

Google is an amazing coincidence generator, isn't it?

And speaking of coincidences, at the beginning of this month we passed through Elmira, though it was dumping rain and hard to get a look at the place. (We were stopping through the Glass Museum in Corning on our way from NYC to Rochester.) Alas, the Barnes and Noble in Elmira is out of stock of my novel--the nearest brick and mortar copies are up in Pittsford, near Rochester.

I've reread several Vonnegut books over the years. And while I shan't be re-reading Finnegans Wake, I might attack Ulysses again some day, and I often return to Joyce's short stories, which I think are outstanding. Although I recognize the importance of what Joyce did in his later career, I can't help but wonder what novels he would have produced if he had stayed in the vein of Dubliners...

I'm not sure if rereadability enters into the grading of a book; there are important experiences I'm glad I had, but would never want to undergo again.

You're absolutely right--no justification beyond enjoyment is ever needed. But like most writers I'm self-absorbed, and can't resist trying to work out the details of why I do what I do. I don;t recommned this way of engaging with life, mind you. It's just how I am.

Steve Steele said...

Did you know they're in process of making cinema of At Swim-? Looks like good cast and director. Sounds impossible, but all good stuff is.

Vonnegut is probably my most often re-read; largely for the quirky concepts or a certain feeling (Cat's Cradle for concepts--Boko Maru, Ice Nine, et al; Mother Night was a great portrayal of romantic love--for me--and with an American Nazi, no less! Not that I hip the Hitler gang, but seemed like a great act of crafting sympathy against type.)

Have had to jump back to Herman Hesse to see why I liked him when I did, and find I don't still... not yet anyway. The pompous intellect of Magister Ludi seems so dated now, though the Rainmaker story gave useful fresh insight; I'd like to re-ride into Narcissus and Goldmund and some of the others.

I find Alan Watts also kind of a let down in looking back {as Tom and Bob advised against, sort of). Tim's right about remembrances of voice drawing you back into those old caves. It's good to hear the old teachers again. Sometimes you find you've gone beyond (or different?) from them--which is oft what they had in mind if they were good teachers. And sometimes, as David said, you find you can almost understand them better after waters of time under bridges unburned. I find Casteneda's Don Juan like that: initially consumed for the drug reference; recently I see how the philosophy always stuck between my mental teeth.

H. Finn! what a great and worthwhile re-read! If only for the great ambushes at recapturing dialect--{did Lenny Bruce give voice to some of them classic distortions?). My French-Canadian high school dropout mother read this great litrachure to me around age 5 {I was, not Mom)--I think she confused it with Huckleberry Hound. After getting to the gore of Huck escaping from imprisonment in his Pap's shack, Mom switched to Bible stories... oh, yum! even more gore! {methinks H. Rap Brown had the apple pie parallel correct--or was it the strawberry statement?)

Anywax--to make a long blab even blabbier--of most recent, what I had to return to within a year to completely reread all over again was the Sandman volumes. Seriously... (how do I say this with a tear in my text yet seeming tongue in my cheek?) One of the saddest days of my existence was finishing that series. I'm sure we've all been dumped at such an offramp at one time or another; despaerately trying to find something else as competently transformational and literarily (though graphic) transfixing to bring meaning into life again, looking into sequels/prequels/character spinoffs--all as unsatisfying as hookers after losing the love of your life ... before crashing on the notion... well, life's just different now-- Grow Up.

And I hope you'll forgive my overdone ellipses and indulgent prolixity. As Viv Stanshall said in The Strain: Gotta lot in me... Had to get it out.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Steve!

No, I didn't know At Swim was being made into a movie; nor would I have thought it could be.

Several of Vonnegut's books are good for multiple passes. "Mother Night" is, I think, his most underrated book; I rank it with Slaughterhouse and Cat's Cradle.

I haven't revisted Hesse, but I can tell he wouldn't age well. Actually, as fiction goes, he wasn't that great at the time, either. (Curiously, Vonnegut blasted the guy in a long-ago essay, "Why They Read Hesse".)

I haven't reread the Sandman books, but I have reread "Good Omens," which I think is one of the funniest books ever written. Gaiman and Pratchett have a wonderful synergy.

I recently reread Clarke's "Childhood's End," and it is still one of the most serious kicks in the head I have ever been subjected to. Some startling things age well; some become, well, unstartling.