Monday, January 24, 2011


The are a few things I read over and over -- the stories of Alice Munro -- but for the most part I don't reread much. Lately, though, I haven't found anything new to read so I tried looking over some old favorites. MISTAKE! A novel I loved, loved, loved twenty years ago seems to have some big obvious flaws these days. A favorite kids' book is, somehow, mysteriously, boring.

But the stories of Anton Chekhov, the patron saint of this blog, are even better than I remember. Each story is also a little different from how I remember it: this time around, new details stand out, and different observations resonate with me. I have a copy of Lady With Lapdog that I first read in grad school. I underlined certain things. For example, I underlined the following from the story "Ward Six":
There was a pause. At that moment Darya came out of the kitchen and stopped in the doorway to listen, with an expression of mute grief, her face resting on her fist.
Why? Why that bit? I have no idea. It's a nice bit, but I have no idea what particularly struck me back in 1994.

This time, I underlined a new bit, from "Ariadne," which is a story I didn't remember well but might be my new favorite:
Ariadne wanted me to join her in Abbazzia. I arrived there on a bright, warm day. It had been raining and the raindrops still hung on the trees.
Of course, I know what I like about it this time: first, I like the audacity with which Chekhov totally dispenses with the journey to Abbazzia. There's no buying the tickets, getting on the boat, being on the boat, blah blah blah. Instead, of all the details to choose to describe arriving in a new place, he picks that one little one about raindrops. And I know what he means. Sometimes you arrive in a new place where it has been raining, but it isn't anymore, it's sunny, and you can't even imagine what that place looks like in the rain. It's a detail about newness and alienation, but it's also beautiful and vivid. There's probably more packed in there, but who wants to pull it apart?

Sometimes a not-so-good piece of writing feels great -- and actually is great -- because it's the right thing for you at the right time. But other stories or novels or poems are so hugely great that they somehow manage to be always new, always surprising, and always just the right thing for whoever you've happened to turn into.

Do you ever reread? What books stand the test of time?


Sung said...

Oh, I really do love those raindrops hanging on the trees. What a nice image.

I didn't read The Lady with the Dog until my MFA program, and I still consider it one of the best stories I've read. If you haven't read the Star Trek version that Kevin Brockmeier wrote in The View from the Seventh Layer, do so immediately! Just a gem all the way through.

The book I've re-read more than any other is Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It only gets better with each additional reading.

- Sung

gvNL said...

I almost reread as much as I read, mostly stories, since they have what Poe calls ‘’the benefit of totality”: (re)reading them becomes an unbroken experience. There are stories I return to on a yearly basis, like friends living on a distance. Then there are books I can pick up in a lost moment just to immerse myself in the beauty of the sentences, the turning of phrases: Nabokov, (early) Updike, Gadda, DFW.

The other day I was rereading Carvers Careful and what stood out besides the vividness of detail and a great sense of place, was how unbelievably short it was - only a handful of pages, while in my memory it contained multitudes. Something to keep in mind for my future writing.

And I really have to dust off my Chekhov stories.

lisa dot richards said...

The Shipping News. I could read it every winter.

5 Red Pandas said...

I'm not a big re-reader, though when I was a kid I was reading below my grade level, then in the 3rd grade our TV broke and my dad refused to buy a new one so I ended up re-reading a bunch of Beverly Cleary books and the next time I was tested I was reading several grade levels above my grade level. So there is that...

Then when I started teaching I had to re-read books because I was teaching them. It was really interesting because suddenly I had to made some kind of meaning out of these books in some way that would be "teachable". It wasn't a pleasant kind of re-reading and it was actually quite stressful.

Lastly, I suppose the writers I've re-read the most are Salinger (short stories) and Carver, but there must be others. I'm not sure how I'd read Carver if I picked him up now. I'm almost afraid to find out.

Pete said...

There are only two books that I faithfully re-read: Knut Hamsun's Hunger and Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make. Every time, I catch perfect little details in both books that I hadn't noticed before.

jon said...

I used to read novels twice, three times, but somewhere along the way I lost the habit. Lately I've wanted to reread Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammet. The last novel I read twice was the Secret History, which I did as a test. The first 'read' was listening to it on tape. I felt a little guilty about how much I liked it and decided to actually read it. It was the same as listening.
Mostly what I reread is poetry and Shakespeare. Keats always seems as if I've never read him before. He's a constant delight and surprise. Shakespeare, well, I can read most of the plays over and over. New things emerge each time.
Then there's the opposite experience. I read Sometimes a Great Notion when I was 16 and thought it was the greatest book. I reread it when I was 24 and was embarrassed at how bad it was.

knigt said...

I've read the Eschaton chapter from Infinite Jest probably a dozen times and I just enjoy the hell out of it every single time. It's almost my comfort reading now -- whenever I am depressed or particularly lonely, it never fails to cheer me up a little.

rmellis said...

Oh, yeah, I reread poetry -- forgot about that -- poetry is made to be reread.

Have not read Infinite Jest (JRL has). I love DFW's nonfiction but still find his fiction hard going. Most of it. (A couple stories I love. There was one in I think the 1986, 1989? BASS that was about 10 years ahead of its time). Maybe after War and Peace... a long book thing.

rmellis said...

I'll check out those other recommendations, too. Haven't read Brockmeier, though I think I've heard his name just often enough so that I'll track him dowl

violentbore said...

Thanks for the post, knigt! I was debating whether or not I would mention Infinite Jest - a book I've never completed - as one of my favorite re-reads.

I've read the first 500 pages TWICE, and enjoyed the hell out of them. The Eschaton reads like the cruelest of jokes, but is an invigorating passage nonetheless.

The most important lesson I learned the second go-around is to embrace every wild footnote chase DFW orchestrated throughout the novel. The 15+ page filmography certainly comes to mind!

I know it will all be worth it when I finally complete the sucker.

*Side note: I'm hesitant to re-read White Noise, because it was my all-time favorite when I was a college student.

Michael Garberich said...

I'm a passionate rereader. If I enjoy a book, I will probably reread it within 2 years. I have never reread a book and had a worse opinion of it with the second helping. Is that true? Let me think... Yes. But I didn't start reading seriously until my second year of college, which was only 5 years ago. I'm also a chronic book abandoner. I have no finish-what-you-start policy. That could partly explain the 3rd sentence.

5 Red Pandas said...

Reading these comments I'm reminded of more books I've re-read-

Great Gatsby (so glad I never taught that book)

White Noise- it held up.

Jesus' Son (My sister and I also watched the movie 2 and 1/2 times in a row once.)

Edward Champion said...

I just reread THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE for the silly Modern Library thing I'm doing. Third time, hadn't touched my beat-up paperback in fifteen years. I was astonished by how savage and melodramatic it was. Cora screaming "Tear me" and "Rip me" and so forth. I was amazed that I had forgotten much of this. Curiously, this time around, I found myself looking at the novel very much from Cora's perspective rather than Frank's -- meaning what ISN'T Frank telling us about Cora and thus himself and thus the savage motivations behind the crimes. Cain's very skillful at burying a lot of this uncomfortable (and unpleasant) tension in melodrama -- yet the book meant just as much to me in my thirties as it did when I was a young 'un. But it was a completely different reading experience that made me appreciate just how Cain was messing with popular literature expectations. Too bad that the guy burned out (thank you, Hollywood, for killing yet another great talent) before he was 50.

Ideally the best rereads are those books that cause you to recognize certain changes within yourself. If you have nearly the same reaction years later, chances are that the author didn't have much in the way of ambition.

Regina said...

This recently happened to me: "A favorite kids' book is, somehow, mysteriously, boring" -- in fact, I wrote a blog post about this experience last month.

I just finished rereading "Home Cooking" & "More Home Cooking" by Laurie Colwin -- friendly, funny essays on food, cooking, eating, and the joys of friends and family. I've also read "To Kill A Mockingbird" too many times to count and "Gilead" at least three times. It's a beautiful book.

andrew said...

Rereading The Catcher In The Rye after rereading Nine Stories last summer. It has been at least 25 years and it is even better this time around. In adolescence, I reread The Stranger, Siddhartha, Walden, all of Kafka. Reread Henry Miller for light entertainment. Reread The Bible for insight. A book is like a diamond and reveals its light and beauty from different angles.

Anonymous said...

Being snowbound, I was just contemplating rereading when I saw your blog article on twitter. I almost have a rule about not rereading. Too many books etc. But, I have indeed reread a couple of books to mixed results. Geekily, I've reread The Lord of the Rings three times (once a decade) and loved it all three times. I tried to pick up The Fountainhead again in my 40's and nearly gagged on the "selfishness" philosophy that I so admired in my early 20's. Memory is such a funny thing. I am so glad I stumbled upon your blog today and all the thoughtful comments. I've been inspired to skip the rereading and dust off my copy of Infinite Jest.