Read It Again, Sam: A Very Sensible Exhortation

Reread Shakespeare. Reread Shakespeare. I endlessly reread Shakespeare,” says the American Falstaff, Harold Bloom.

Now consider Patti Smith, winner of the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction for her memoir, “Just Kids”: “I’m about to reread César Aira’s ‘An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter’ once again,” she said in a telephone interview from France. “The book’s mere 87 pages are so multi­faceted and transporting and I get so absorbed that upon finishing I don’t remember anything. Like having a complex cinematic dream that dissipates upon awakening.”

Lots of writers reread their favorite books — and not just once or twice. Stephen King, who wears a T-shirt with the slogan Quot libros, quam breve tempus (“So many books, so little time”), has read “Lord of the Flies” eight or nine times, he said via e-mail, and “Lord of the Rings” three or four. King has also read Ian McEwan’s “Enduring Love” and Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” three or four times each; James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity” four or five times; and John D. MacDonald’s 1960 thriller “The End of the Night” some half a dozen times. Of that book, about a college dropout’s killing spree, King said: “It’s one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century. This is a novel Émile Zola would have relished.”

Writers are not the only ones who reread books, of course. In her recently published “On Rereading,” the retired English professor Patricia Meyer Spacks cites a friend who “claimed that she hated to reread. When I pointed out that I have known her to reread Jane Austen, she looked surprised. ‘Everyone rereads Jane Austen.’ ” (Everyone who reads her in the first place, maybe: King said in his e-mail that “I have never read a single word of Jane Austen.”)

Many authors also return regularly to Virginia Woolf. The novelist and critic Dale Peck tries to read “The Waves” every year. “It affects me like spiritual instruction,” he said. “I always feel like a better person after I put it down.” The New Yorker critic James Wood rereads “To the Lighthouse” annually: “It’s a joy to return to, perpetually rich, perpetually moving.” And the novelist Sophie Gee revisits “Mrs. Dalloway” when she can: “The magnificence of the writing is so overwhelming. Clarissa Dalloway has a realness for me that no other heroine quite matches.”

For many rereaders, the habit started in childhood. Helen DeWitt, whose most recent novel is “Lightning Rods,” provided a list of nearly 100 books she regularly rereads, but said it all began with just one series — the Nancy Drew mysteries. Similarly, Patti Smith started her rereading when she was just a kid. “I have always reread,” she said. “I read ‘The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins’ by Dr. Seuss over and over. And I read it to my siblings.” When Dale Peck was 10, he moved to a Kansas wilderness with no public library. “One summer,” he said, “my stepmother brought a box of books from her parents’ attic to our house containing ‘Valley of the Dolls’ and ‘Peyton Place,’ both of which I read over and over.” Bharati Mukherjee, author of the novel “Miss New India,” reread Louisa May Alcott’s oeuvre a half-dozen times when she was 9. (At the same age, she said, she began writing a novel about three child detectives; it remains unfinished.)

Like any reader, writers may discover after rereading that a book has transformed from a sexy college date into a louse. “I remembered loving Henry James’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’ when I studied it for my Ph.D. comps,” Mukherjee said. “This summer I tried to reread it. I soon abandoned the book, screaming, ‘Enough complex interiority, just give me a couple of big head-butting scenes!’ ” Siddhartha Deb, author of “The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India,” had a kind of older-and-wiser experience with “The Great Gatsby,” which he first read at Columbia University. “I had a vague sense that it might me tell me something about America,” he said. “I reread it hence and found that almost everything it had to say to me was about contemporary India.”

There are motives to reread that are unique to writers. The biographer and novelist Edmund White sums up one of the more touching ones: “I reread in order to remind myself how good you have to be in order to be any good at all.”

The novelist Madison Smartt Bell rereads the fiction of both Mary Gaitskill and Robert Stone the way one architect might appreciate another’s blueprints. “Both Gaitskill and Stone have a lapidary realism,” he said. “You can climb inside their stories and walk around seeing objects more exactly. It’s like a three-dimensional place, instead of an illusion. Most writers just give you one surface.” Ben Marcus, whose novel “The Flame Alphabet” will be published in January, pores over Kafka’s diaries as thoroughly as a C.I.A. psychologist: “It’s a way to spy into Kafka’s workshop. His fiction is perfectly enigmatic, yet his diaries contain transparent subject matter presented more casually than his fiction, revealing the atmosphere that preoccupied the mysterious writer.”

Some authors reread as a kind of calisthenics. Before Elmore Leonard begins his day’s writing, he sometimes rereads a portion of George V. Higgins’s “Friends of Eddie Coyle.” “When the book came out in 1972,” Leonard explained, “my Hollywood agent said: ‘This is your kind of stuff, kiddo. Rush out and get it before you write another word.’ I did. The book set me free. I saw, this was how you do it. I learned so much about dialogue and cadence from this book.” Likewise, before the novelist Jonathan Lethem begins work each day, he may return to William Maxwell or Paula Fox or James Salter. “I choose text where every decoration has been flayed from the prose,” said Lethem, whose most recent book is the nonfiction collection “The Ecstasy of Influence.” “It’s more than ‘What a relief there are no adverbs.’ It’s text that has a courage, a leaping-in quality.” Another writer who rereads to prepare for the day’s work is the poet and novelist Sherman Alexie, who admires Emily Dickinson so much he doesn’t just reread her — he physically retypes her poems. “I love her subtle paganism and her anger at God and how her love for the whole world can be compressed to fit inside one woman’s bedroom window,” he said. “Also, she was alive at the same time as Crazy Horse. . . . Crazy Horse and Dickinson! They would have written such great poems about each other.”

In “The Pleasure of the Text,” the French semiotician Roland Barthes posits a reading-related dichotomy between books that cause pleasure and those that cause jouissance — a word he used to mean both bliss and orgasm. For Barthes, rereading may cause pleasure, “but not my bliss: bliss may come only with the absolutely new.” Yet Barthes neglects an additional energy besides pleasure and bliss: love. Rereading is a narcotic of love. As Patti Smith said: “I have never fallen in love with a book that I did not love all the more the second time. With each reading, more is revealed. One builds a beloved relationship, adding layers of associative memory and visual impressions. I’m like Gumby, excited to re-enter the atmosphere.”

David Bowman, a novelist who lives in Manhattan, regularly rereads the works of Cormac McCarthy and Kem Nunn.



One thought on “Read It Again, Sam: A Very Sensible Exhortation

Leave a Reply