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Some Notes Upon the Act of Rereading

Renewed Joys, Bemused Disappointments, & Rueful Reappraisals  

Most lovers of fiction, in the course of a lifetime of reading, have acquired a personal library of their favorite authors’ works. In addition to this idiosyncratic collection, we oftentimes have an ever-growing stack of “to be read” volumes weighing down our favorite end table, desktop, or spare chair. A life-long reader is also most painfully, poignantly aware that there are thousands—strike that; tens of thousands—of other great works of fiction that he or she will never find the time to read.  

Given these facts of limited time and an ever-increasing number of newer books clamoring for our attention, isn’t it curious that many of us reread beloved works of fiction? I refer here to those rare books that spoke to us in an especially personal and compelling way; that taught us something about ourselves and the world-at-large that enriched and deepened our “planet time” in a fashion lesser works failed to.  

Why indulge in rereading? Why reread a book—any book—when multitudes of unread books insistently call out with seductive siren song? I submit to you that the essential reason can be summed up in one word: comfort. It is remembrance of the experience we had with certain books that lures us back to turn those familiar pages once again. (And please understand—by use of the word “comfort” I mean in the sense of “alleviating or diminishing a person’s level of psychic and/or physical distress” and of “an expectation of aesthetic satisfaction and intellectual, emotional, and spiritual stimulation via renewed engagement with a work of art”. Definitions mine.)  

One book I reread every decade is Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. An extended meditation on the joys of being a boy only just now discovering what it means to be alive (while simultaneously realizing the inevitability and ubiquity of death), the novel is by turns saccharine sweet and . . . something darker . . . though never bitter. When I first read the novel as a teenaged boy of 14 callow years I confess to being bored out of my mind. (How can one feel nostalgia for a time one is only now experiencing?) What kind of narrative was this, I wondered. No flinty-eyed men killing bad guys with “barking” .45 automatic pistols and/or “chattering” submachine guns. No explicit sex. No “glimmering arc” sword-play whilst contending against orcs/Vikings/wizards/other. (yawnWords words words.  

When I reread the book in my 20s I found myself noting and appreciating Bradbury’s prose-poetry style (your mileage may vary) and thought, “Yes; the book is quite evocative of a certain time and place. Well done.” My response was primarily an intellectual one. When I reread the book in my 30s my heart was pierced and my vision blurred at certain poignant passages. Rereading the book in my 40s I found myself all but overcome with emotion. Upon rereading the book in my 50s I found myself still an admirer of the book—delighting as ever in Bradbury’s consummate word-smithery—but the raw emotional reaction to plot and theme wasn’t there. The most I could summon was a wistful smile at certain incidents and passages of description. I still deeply appreciated the book, to be sure, but was all-too-aware of the authorial techniques Bradbury was using to wring response from the reader: my own hard-won knowledge of the craft served as a distancing mechanism that muted textual poignancy and experienced emotion. I was sorely disappointed and more than a little unsettled—in the reader, not the writer. 

What had changed since my first reading of the novel? The book remained the same—the exact same words were printed on those pages, after all—but the reader over the course of those five decades was five different people: a teenaged boy, a 20-something-marine, a 30-year-old married man, a 40-year-old married man, then a divorced man in his mid-50s. Each person brought his own life-lived experience and wisdom (or appalling lack thereof) to the text. Each reader was in dialogue with the author—but not every reader was Bradbury’s “ideal reader” during the course of those five decades. What will be my experience be when I reread the novel again in my 60s, I wonder? Assuming I live that long. . . .  

Another writer I reread regularly for pleasure is James Thurber. Witty, understated and urbane, the best of his writing conjures wistful daydream and wry, world-weary melancholia. What also comes through in his narrative voice is the sense of a genteel, bespectacled man alternately startled and irritated by the shrill boors around him. Mr. Thurber is a devastating and shrewd observer of human nature. I envy anyone just discovering his writing for the first time.  

What books have not held up upon rereading? Well . . . Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan: The Executioner series, for one. Don’t laugh! For those of you rolling your eyes please understand: Don Pendleton was the best-of-the-best of the late 60s and 70s “men’s action-adventure” writers. (Pendleton all but single-handedly created that genre.) His hard-boiled writing was a cross between the toughness of Dashiell Hammett and the ferocity of Robert E. Howard: each of the 36 books in the original 37-book series (excepting #16: Sicilian Slaughter, written by Jim Peterson, a hack brought in to grind out the next book in the series during Don’s dispute with Pinnacle Books) was so packed with gunfire and explosions that the pages fairly reeked of cordite and the iron-rich tang of blood. As for the teeth-gritted machismo of the exchanges between Bolan and the gangster scum he was exterminating, well . . . that dialogue was broken-bottle-to-the-eye poetry of the streets. (Note: Marvel’s Punisher anti-hero was a total rip-off of Pendleton’s character. Consider: Bolan was a combat-hardened Vietnam veteran who returned home after his family was killed by the mob to launch a vendetta against “la cosa nostra”. Frank Castle was a combat-hardened Vietnam veteran who . . .) I recently reread the first three books in the Executioner series and found them entertaining as ever, though marred by right-wing philosophizing and neo-fascist authorial asides. I also found the characterization paper-thin and descriptive narrative passages lean to the point of non-existent. There is also a whiff of sexism and misogyny presented as chivalric knight-errant-championing in the patronizing attitude of Bolan/Pendleton toward his female characters. All of this went over my head reading as an enthralled teenage boy, of course; I worshipped Mack Bolan as the exemplar of what an alpha male should be: tough as gun metal, stoic as a brick, ready to fuck or fight at the twitch of a hip or the sneer of a lip. (When I went through Marine Corps boot camp as a 17-year-old and found myself ready to drop from exhaustion during extended platoon formation runs, I summoned the energy to stagger forward by envisioning Conan the Barbarian running at my left side, Bolan the Executioner on my right. I won’t repeat here what these hard-bitten warriors said to me. But mark this: they got me through it. Some turn to deities, angels and saints for life-sustaining strength and consolation; others to muscle-ripped melancholy barbarians and flint-eyed executioners, heh!)  

As to other authors: H. P. Lovecraft was a weird tales writer that utterly baffled me when I first attempted reading him at 12 years of age. I found his syntax and vocabulary utterly impenetrable. Nowadays, I delight in his measured, polysyllabic prose and the dark cosmicism of his horrific plots and ghastly imagination.  

John Irving has held up—in fact, gotten better with every passing decade. The World According to Garp is one of the funniest, yet at one and the same time wince-inducing, examinations of the human condition and the disordered workings of lust upon male/female relationships that you will ever read.  

Jack London is as great and relevant and riveting as he ever was. Ditto Mark Twain. Oscar Wilde. Tolkien.  

Certain works of Philip K. Dick reward rereading. (I especially enjoy his short stories—vastly under-rated. Favorite novels: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.)  

Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire, and Stephen King’s The Shining get reread and wolf-whistled at by me every couple of decades.  

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was reread three times in succession: first for the immersion of the fictive dream and the tick-tock unfolding of plot (turn pages—faster!), the second time for writing instruction (How did she do that?), and the third time as awed worship due an acknowledged master. (Is this book really as good as I think it is? My god, it is! Absolutely brilliant.)  

Pat Conroy’s deep and abiding humanity, lust for life, and sharp intelligence infuse his characters with vivid three-dimensionality and realism. His books—rather curiously, I think—neither diminish nor grow in stature over the years; upon re-reading they remain as engrossing and seemingly effortless and compelling as ever. (Is this the true mark of authorial genius, then: the ability to reach readers of nearly every age and life-lived experience?) 

David L. Ulin, writing in The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time, tells us: 

Rereading can be a tricky process, in which, for better or worse, you’re brought face-to-face with both the present and the past. It’s different than reading, more layered, more nuanced, with implications about how we’ve changed. In her 2005 book Rereadings, Anne Fadiman traces the distinction between reading and rereading: “The former had more velocity; the latter had more depth. The former shut out the world in order to focus on the story; the latter dragged in the world in order to assess the story. The former was more fun; the latter was more cynical. But what was remarkable about the latter was that it contained the former: even while, as with the upper half of a set of bifocals, I saw the book through the complicating lens of adulthood, I also saw it through the memory of the first time I’d read it.” 

What books have you reread? Has your opinion/reaction to a particular book or writer changed over time? Explain.   

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18 thoughts on “Some Notes Upon the Act of Rereading

  1. Sarah says:

    Hi Carl, this is a thought provoking article, I really enjoyed it. I quite like rereading the Holmes stories or the Poirots – but only because there are so many and I always forget how they arrive at their conclusions. That definitely says more about me and my lack of retention rather than Doyle’s or Christie’s skill as writers! As a teacher I have to reread several texts and, honestly, I think I get more from them each time. I never tire of picking up Macbeth or A Christmas Carol as I find new links or I’ve read something else that provides more context. Purely for pleasure though, the one book I’ve read on more than one occasion is Alice in Wonderland. A story that fires up my imagination and can be enjoyed throughout a lifetime for many reasons – Alice’s attitude I appreciate more; the violence can be more wince-inducing on rereading; the joy of appreciating Carroll’s imagination.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Hi, Sarah! Thanks for commenting. I chuckled re: your comment about retention. I remember looking at a wall of books I’d read (this was sometime in my mid-20s) and realizing I couldn’t recall a single incident or arresting detail from most of those books. I started highlighting my texts shortly thereafter.

      I, too, have reread Conan Doyle and Lewis Carroll for delight.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. I read The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. Found it riveting. Most books are etched in my memory complete with images of the scenes, so it’s hard for me to be surprised when I reread a book. Now in my senior years, my brain is not so retentive! Now I enjoy rereading books.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. It’s been so long since I’ve reread a book, I can barely remember what it was like. There are too many new ones to read. Sigh. I tend to reread poetry for comfort. After reading your essay, I was reminded of Dorothy Canfield’s short story “Sex Education.” It could serve as a metaphor for the rereading process.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. “I saw the book through the complicating lens of adulthood, I also saw it through the memory of the first time I’d read it.” So resonant.

    Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes earned rereading several times over the years. I think that was my first literary experience of the darkness of the human soul. I’ve read Barry’s Peter Pan, which becomes so much more melancholy with each decade, countless times, many out loud to younger siblings, my own child, and children I’ve taken care of. Every few years, it’s time to reread The Hobbit and LotR again — a couple of times, I’ve preceded that with The Silmarillion.

    I guess I just enjoy being absorbed in a world of a well-crafted story with complex characters whose flaws drag them to despair and whose ideals can push them to rise triumphant.

    As for humor — rereads of Douglas Adams still make me laugh.

    And there is that growing list of Books to Read. In fact, you’ve just inspired me to put a library hold on The Bluest Eye. Thank you, Carl.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I very much enjoyed reading your response, Sue! Interesting comments re: Barry’s Peter Pan, Tolkien and Douglas Adams. Also: it would appear a lot of us have read and very much enjoyed the work of Ray Bradbury. As for Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye–you won’t be disappointed.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. The idea of rereading books took me down a similar vein, although in a reverse trajectory. For many years I followed special effects and read articles about the magic displayed in movies, including sound effects. In the last four years of that effort I was most serious about my research. Even though I love the movies, I’m not an avid movie goer. I stopped all of a sudden in my search for more info. I began editing movies while I watched them and it began to take the joy out of watching.

    I was questioning how the magic was done during the movie. What an interruption! It took me about a year to realize that I was movie editing. When I first noticed it, I was watching a scene that was cut short, i found myself thinking that this scene needed to be on the scene for a few more beats for the viewer to get attached to the emotion of that scene. It was a critical scene.

    Still I love the magic in movies, and books, but I no longer watch movies with such a critical eye. And now I’m back to enjoying them full on again.

    So as a reader, can we put aside that which makes us so critical. Perhaps it’s not the way that we’ve grown up, but the way we put aside time to read. Is it the quality of our head space that we need to work on?

    Liked by 2 people

    • You raise some interesting points, Linda. Speaking only for myself, I confess that I’ll never be able to read uncritically again. (Until or unless senility strikes–in which case I probably won’t be able to read at all, eh?) I wonder how others will answer. . . .

      Liked by 2 people

  6. My lady gifted me an “Advanced Reader’s Edition,” an uncorrected proof of the novel, Dhalgren, that she found on the ‘Net. I re-read that, of course. It is an enchanting, bemusing, and engrossing story that in the end still leaves me wondering what, what did I just read?

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Admirable re-reading dedication, Carl, which surely enriches one’s experience of a text in all the ways you mention. But before I pop off, I’m trying to read a tiny percentage of those I still haven’t read (including several of those you mention), so re-reading isn’t something I do. The older we get, the more tempus fugit.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for commenting, Curtis. “Tempus fugit”, indeed! (“It’s later than you think.”–Jim Morrison) Still, I have to ask: Have you ever reread a book? Which one? Why? (:::adjusts hot klieg light to shine directly into your face:::)

      Liked by 2 people

      • I think you’ve stumped me there, Carl. I seem to remember re-reading Salinger’s short stories a long time ago, Raymond Carver’s too. But a whole novel? Not that I can recall. Half a novel once, before realising that I’d already read it. Which goes to show I ought to re-read them all since I’ve forgotten them all anyway. The only text I go back to again and again is Eliot’s Four Quartets. When I’m in a special kind of mood.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Re: “Which goes to show I ought to re-read them all since I’ve forgotten them all anyway.”

          LOL! That’s another good reason to reread books. I keep running across certain storied titles a decade or so after the first read and think to myself, Let’s ‘ave another go at it, shall we? You’ve forgotten most of the bloody thing anyway; what if the book is much better than you remember? Much worse?

          I poke the suspect book with narrowed eyes, considering. Think you’re so special. Pick it up. Let’s see if you’ve still got the chops. . . .

          As to the writers you reread–Salinger, Carver, Eliot–all I can say is: interesting trio! Post-modern minimalism mixed with mysticism, eh?

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  8. mimispeike says:

    Sorry, I’ve been in Maisie-land all week. I just posted chapter nine on Medium. (Title: ‘Cuckoo! Screamed the Bird in the Tree’.) Two chapters to go, one complete, one lacking only the illustration.

    I have my favorite things I reread, a couple of them as often as about every other year. These combine a style I admire and, very often, history I can pull from, the structure of cities in the sixteenth century and the like.

    I like to reread books I loved thirty-forty (and fifty-sixty!) years ago, to see if my opinion has changed.

    I’m not reading much at present, of books. I’m doing a lot of research on the web. Especially on Elinor Glyn and Victoria Cross, big-selling romance writers of the early twentieth century. Both these women play a huge part in my final chapter. I’ve found many of their works on Guttenberg, and I’m having a ball reading them.

    My line, ‘Cuckoo! screamed the bird . . .’ is out of a Glyn novel. And, ‘Hat of Darkness’. My writer-character admits to stealing ‘Hat’ from her. I’ve lifted many a goofy line from Madame Glyn.

    My style is pretty set-in-stone, as you know. When I read these days, I read mostly to observe punctuation choices. I’ll eventually get back to genuine reading, for story, for pleasure.

    I’m all for rereading. There are books that give and give and give.

    Liked by 1 person

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