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Detail of an illustration created for the print version of this story (Neal Cresswell/Neal Cresswell for The Globe and Mail)
Detail of an illustration created for the print version of this story (Neal Cresswell/Neal Cresswell for The Globe and Mail)

ESSAY

Why we reread some books, and not others Add to ...

Contemplating a move to a new office, I recently decided to purge my book collection. This consists of more than 100 books I have read at least twice, a few dozen I often refer to, 100 I have not read but intend to, about 50 oddities such as Shakespeare’s Bawdy and Hoosier Home Remedies which serve a purely ornamental function, and perhaps 30 books I cannot make up my mind what to do with. These include Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus and Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, books I may never read but am reluctant to part with.

In the end, I could only bring myself to unload a few dozen books, some of which I gave to the library, some of which I shipped to my brother-in-law in France. These were mostly novels I had greatly enjoyed but had no plans to read a second time: Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar, Nadine Gordimer’s A Son’s Tale. Maybe I will reread them one day in France.

The selection of books that I love too much to ever part with includes such obvious classics as Gulliver’s Travels, Persuasion, The Great Gatsby, The Guns of August and Dubliners, but also less obvious volumes such as Thomas Berger’s Meeting Evil, John P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley, James Chambers’s The Devil’s Horsemen – a short, engrossing history of the Mongol invasions – and Across the Wide Missouri, Bernard DeVoto’s amazing book about the fur trade that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 but could probably not be published today, due to its politically incorrect views on native Americans. But by far the most important section in my library is made up of books that I have not only read and reread, but have then reread a second and, in some cases, a third time. These are the books that – to quote a painful but serviceable Sixties bromide – keep on keepin’ on.

Or do they? Certain books – The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Light in August, Pride and Prejudice, Hamlet – elicit exactly the same response each time I read them. They are unbelievably great and we are lucky to have them. This is the same way I feel about Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Faure’s violin sonatas; no matter how many times I hear them I never tire of them, which is not true of Brahms’s Second Symphony or Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, or, for that matter Gimme Shelter. But several books that I have re-reread elicit different reactions each time I pull them down off the shelf. They do not keep keeping on. They did not keep doing what they started out doing. They started doing something else.

A case in point: Like most young men who grew up in the 1960s I was smitten by Albert Camus’s The Stranger when I read it in high school. But when I reread it in my twenties, I annexed the disdainful opinion I had heard so often in France that Camus was a lightweight, the philosophe des copains – the teenybopper’s philosopher. I clung to this appropriated, unoriginal opinion until I read the book a third time in my forties and was floored by its spare beauty. Since that time, I have read it on at least two other occasions, and now believe that it is one of the jewels of the 20th century and that anyone who feels otherwise is an idiot. I would say much the same thing about The Plague.

Here, presented in no special order, are a few other books that I still love after a third or fourth reading: William Kennedy’s Legs, Vercors’s The Silence of the Sea, Tom McGuane’s The Sportsmen’s Club, Par Lagerkvist’s Barabbas, Robert Coover’s Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., and Philip Roth’s ludicrously underrated The Great American Novel. To this list I would add Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country and The Master of Go, plus such contemporary marvels as Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist, Jane Smiley’s No Ordinary Love, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, and Elise Blackwell’s beautiful debut novel Hunger.

Some books suffer from repeated rereadings. I hated Oliver Twist the first time I read it at 13, liked it much more 35 years later, but now find Twist himself too much of a cipher and Dickens’s crude anti-semitism repellent. Great Expectations, by contrast, remains … well, great. I now prefer The Sun Also Rises to The Great Gatsby, because the architecture and symbolism in Fitzgerald’s book is increasingly obtrusive, while Hemingway’s first and only great novel remains something of a mystery. John Cheever’s short stories have lost their hypnotic power after repeated readings, perhaps because of his fixation on a social class in which I have no interest; William Trevor’s stories, on the other hand, have not. Madame Bovary, after four readings, still seems to me to be the greatest novel ever written, though I have only read War and Peace once. Le Père Goriot never ceases to amaze, nor does Jane Eyre.

Henry Miller, to my mind, does not hold up to re-rereadings. The exuberance, the passion, the irreverence, the smut that so impressed me as a young man when I read Tropic of Cancer no longer hold me in their thrall. There is something contrived and histrionic about Miller’s attempts to portray himself as the double-threat autodidact and noble savage, and his self-adulating rants about his emancipation from society’s mores become wearisome. He, like Frank Zappa, is a link, not the chain. To quote Ian Hunter. He is an artist that callow young men should never cease to be indebted to, but should ultimately outgrow. I have no idea which artists women should outgrow.

My feelings about Tropic of Capricorn and The Colossus of Maroussi are much the same as my feelings about science fiction; if you don’t eventually come to understand why Philip K. Dick and William Gibson are not in the same league as Henry James, you never grow up. This is not a reflection on Philip K. Dick or William Gibson. It is a reflection on you.

For the record, I have never reread a book of science fiction. And I am not going to start now. I’m going to play it safe and quit while I’m behind.

Joe Queenan’s essay collection One for the Books will be published this fall.

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