Friday, September 26, 2008

On Reading and Re-Reading

One of themes of this blog is that one of the most important things a writer can do is read. It's an activity which is valuable in so many different ways: exposure to different styles, attitudes, approaches; a break from the grind of composition; and sheer enjoyment. The Why Should I Read...? links on the left set out some of my favourites.

There is a balance between seeking out new material and re-reading. The writer who only reads their books once never sucks all the marrow from the bone; while the writer who only reads tried and trusted favourites does not expand their range. So most of us, I suspect, mingle new material with the occasional return to certain titles. My most common re-reads are Jack Vance, of course, but also Austen and, strangely, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro.

What is it that makes a book re-readable. Humans are creatures of story: what will happen next? Will Odysseus make it home? We've known the answer to that for over two thousand years, but still we read Homer. Will Miss Bennet marry Mr Darcy? We can probably guess the answer before the end of the first reading--but Pride and Prejudice remains perhaps the most-loved novel in English. The books we want to re-read take the writer's greatest advantage--that they can keep us guessing--and cast it away. We've read the book once: we've learned that Anna Karenina puts her head on the railway track, but still we come back. And it's for something other than plot.

A re-readable book must keep back something on the first reading. It must yield a fresh delight once we are unyoked from needing to know what happens next. For some books, like The Quincunx, multiple readings are necessary simply to understand the plot (still not sure I do after three goes...); sometimes a second reading illustrates the neatness with which the plot is contrived (why else would you re-read Agatha Christie?); sometimes the beauty of the prose, like a flower, never cloys. Other writers can unite character with elegance of expression in a way which satisfies whichever mood you are in.

David Isaak quoted in his blog a while ago Raymond Obstfeld's dictum that the writer should aim to put a gem on every page. It's the best one-line writing mantra I've heard. Are the books we re-read the ones which pull it off?

1 comment:

David Isaak said...

I'm not really sure what draws me back to books. In some cases, I reread them simply becasue I read them too young and either 1) didn't understand why everone thought they were so great, or 2) loved them and want to see if they were really that good. This latter is a risky strategy. There's nothing worse than finding that a book you loved really wasn't all that good.

But although I can come up with reasons for why I believe I return to certain books (I believe I went through that exrcise after one of your other posts), the fact is that I'm not sure.

If I really understood why I reread what I reread, I'd probably have a lot more insight into myself.

Too much insight, probably. I think I'll avoid thinking further about this.