Repetition for Deemphasis
I rarely reread books, even ones I’d list among my favorites. Primarily this is because most books don’t seem to hold up time after time. I don’t blame the books, as it’s me who has changed between readings, perhaps even because of them.
Some books require the right intellect, state of mind, or current events to appear brilliantly relevant. I still appreciate Robert Heinlein, but now that I’m a grown-ass man, his writing is often weak, his ideas often unchallenged, and his fancies sometimes too far removed from the realities of modern science. Catcher in the Rye may resonate as a well-written novel of philosophical import to an angry teen, but as an adult it comes across as well-written whiny drivel. And while Chicken Soup for the Soul may be exactly what I need as an ill-tempered and depressed youth on a rainy weekend after being dumped, it’s self-serving saccharine crap the rest of the time, by which I mean nearly all the time.
I can’t reread Narnia without blatant religious parallels eliciting eye-rolling and huffing. I can’t reread classic kids books without anger at the way they’ve marred the darkness of the original Grimm‘s with happy endings and PC sentiment. I can’t flip through classic Dickens without being annoyed at the archaic language or Fleming‘s Bond series without scoffing at the stupidity of social norms. Even excellent books like the Game of Thrones series loses its luster because the shock value is lost in the knowing. And modern forays into new territory like those from David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Safran Foer, no matter how well-written, often suffer for their attempts at novelty.
These days, it seems more likely that a new novel will either follow tropes and devices well-worn or will rewrite a classic with modern trappings than it does that the author actually has an original idea. Which isn’t to say that a rehashed idea or plot can’t still be brilliantly executed and wonderfully written. But if I’m constantly barraged with the same stories and characters changed with slight differences what’s to keep me reading new books or rereading the old ones?
I. Doing It Best
When a novel overcomes itself and becomes the greatest/most influential/most enjoyable/most MOST version available, it becomes almost required reading. Do I need to read every Arthur Conan Doyle book published? No, but it behooves me to read at least one to understand his influences (you can note the BBC show Sherlock quoting Star Trek in turn quoting Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes). Do I need to devour every Shakespeare play or every Danielle Steele novel? Hell no (especially to the latter). But they’re both so ubiquitous that they provide context for all my other reading relative.
There’s often disagreement in what is the best of the best, and I certainly don’t have to enjoy these books or agree with the general opinion of them. It is, however, in my best interest to try each and every one of them and find out which I want to explore in more depth with my limited time.
For a work known as a “novel,” there’s surprisingly less novelty in books than I’d expect, especially after reading so many. Sit down and read through Joseph Campbell‘s works and it becomes quickly clear that we’ve been playing through the same tropes for generations. Still, there are sometimes amazing things in novels never before conceived. More often, this is restricted to science fiction, or, in a looser sense of novelty, fantasy, where the impossible and improbable coalesce into a temporary mass hysteria shared by author and readers. Think of the head injuries to Harry Potter fans who tried walking through a pillar at the train station.
I usually experience this as the novelty of little differences. I recently finished Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, which is a fantasy novel with distinctly Arab roots. While most of it could’ve been reset and cast in a traditional fantasy world, it was the Arab influence that really captured my imagination. In other books, things may be similar, but it’s picking out the minute differences that make it that much more enjoyable. Of course, when those differences aren’t there, it’s that much more painful…
As I get older, I find myself reading more non-fiction. I was absolutely captivated by Ian W. Toll‘s Six Frigates. When reality is brought to me in a way I could not experience without reading it, I can fall into non-fiction. It tends to spill over into my reality as well. I visited the USS Constitution shortly after reading it, something I’ve done many times growing up, and found the experience to be even deeper and more wonderful for having read Holm’s awesome tome. The same historical truths found in many non-fiction books can also be found in historical fiction. I fell in love with Amin Maalouf‘s Samarkand and its historical delving into the Arab world, and though it’s still fiction, it touches enough truth grant me perspective on a real culture in which I’m an outsider.
But truth isn’t restricted to just non-fiction. Cormac McCarthy captures truths about human nature in The Road. Jane Austen clearly captures truth about romance in her beloved titles. Even Richard Adams captures truth about bravery and rabbits in his classic Watership Down. Truth comes in many guises, and sometimes I need to be reminded of what’s possible in extreme circumstances.
I’m in love. Unfortunately, what I’m in love with is language. And though I can feel it’s caress with every turn of the page, it can’t love me back. What it can do for me is help me see beauty.
When I walk around town, I’m like a constant narrator in my own head. When my senses collect data, my mind is already parsing the exposition I would do if I were writing it in scene. I love to describe the deli counter worker’s angular, Grecian nose or the stubbly feel of the cement of the park bench. Sometimes I narrate in the hard-boiled Marlowe style, stark and unrepentant. Sometimes I try to capture only the most important Hemingwayian details for concision. Sometimes I like to drop into Byronesque odes to the fuzz on my tennis ball. Regardless, reading provides fodder for my mind, a healthy dose of words, terms, and descriptions that flavor my life.
All of these things add up to one of the absolute laws in my life: love to read.
And I do. Sometimes I forget how much I love it or can’t focus on the book in hand. Sometimes my love isn’t an end unto itself, but rather a means of inspiration leaving me willing to throw the book aside for whatever else I need to do. But no matter what, I love to read. And though I may not come back to things, or I may not enjoy it when I do, I hope I always take away a little something that will pepper my life with literary spices, be it the perfect turn of phrase or a new or fascinating conspiracy to overlay on real interactions I’m watching from afar.
Everyone has their own reasons for reading or rereading books. So I ask, what are your reasons for picking up the same book again? What’s most important to you in a book?