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Novels you reread have a different role in your personal pantheon than novels you simply admire or revere. There is something troubling about The Spy that draws you back again and again. Partly it is the sense that you may have missed something – that you haven’t fully unravelled the intricacies and nuances of the book.

I was struck by this remark in a very fine article by William Boyd about The Spy Who Came In From The Cold in last Saturday’s Guardian. I don’t re-read that much, but I do recognise Boyd’s characterisation.

There are a lot of people who re-read as “comfort reading”, something I’ve never really got my head around. To me this implies reading a book that you want to stay the same all the time. Yet books never behave like that. Books change as you read them and between readings. Every time you open a book it’s a new journey. So when I re-read it is because I am expecting to encounter the book anew, and it is going to be a different experience, evoke new emotions, raise new thoughts.

As I say, I don’t re-read much, and when I do it is mostly because I’m going to be writing something about the author or the work in question. But the books I do re-read do indeed occupy that different place in my pantheon, they are intricate and troubling. And I re-read them precisely because I want to reconsider those troubles. A novel like The Affirmation by Christopher Priest I have read countless times and I have never failed to find something new in it, it has never failed to change the way I think, and it has never failed to disturb me. Similarly novels like Days Between Stations or Tours of the Black Clock by Steve Erickson remain puzzles no matter how often I encounter them, and each visit I solve the puzzle in a slightly different way.

So, what do you re-read? And why?

22 thoughts on “Re-reading

  1. Hi Paul,

    One book (or series of books) that I reread all the time is Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles (The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, The High King). I first read them when I was ten years old or so, and they’ve been perennial favorites ever since.

    On one hand, they’re comforting. I mean, I know pretty well by now how they go—could probably recite certain passages from memory. (“Taran wanted to make a sword. But Coll, who’d been charged with the more practical side of his education, had insisted on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long.” …a little bit off in my punctuation, I see.)

    But part of what I enjoy about revisiting them is how different they are every time. I always find waiting in them my most current interests. (Which just convinces me further of how right Paul Ricoeur was.)

    The other reason I reread is to study. Nothing shows you a thing’s structure better than experiencing it multiple times in a row: watching a movie three times in one day, reading the same book three or more times in one week. Indeed, the first time I watch/read something, I consider it mainly preparation for rewatching/rereading. (It’s just that some things don’t interest me enough to revisit them—at least, not quickly.)

    The best book I’ve recently read on reading (and rereading) remains Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. He points out (correctly, I think) that what we commonly call “reading” is instead a constellation of linked activities: hearing about books, reading about books, forming impressions before we even begin to read, connecting what we’ve heard and read about books to other knowledge we already have, forgetting what we’ve read even as we’re reading it. (It’s applied Ricoeur, really, but with more of an emphasis on the limitations of memory.)

    1. I keep meaning to seek out Bayard’s book. He’s right about reading being a constellation of activities, which sometimes doesn’t even involve opening the book. There are books on my shelves that have been there 20, 30 years or more that I’ve never actually got around to reading. But by now it feels as if I know them, I know what happens in them. There is a strange osmosis that happens when you own and handle books (one of the reasons I’m very nervous about the whole idea of ebooks).

      Re-reading a book for how different it is does not seem to me to be the same thing as reading for comfort – I’m almost inclined to make a distinction between re-reading and comfort reading. I remember when I was a child I was an avid reader and re-reader, but I can’t remember the last time I revisited a book I first encountered before the age of, say, 15 (except, of course, My Family And Other Animals, as mentioned here). I do remember reading Catch 22 over and over (I really must go back and look at that again), and I read The History of Mr Polly about ten times in little more than a year. This, of course, ties in with what you say about study: Polly was my O-Level set book.

      And we haven’t mentioned poetry. I constantly re-read certain poems by T.S. Eliot and C.P. Cavafy – though that somehow doesn’t feel like re-reading in the same sense as re-reading a novel.

      1. Argh, Adam, I’ve somehow managed to reply to your comment actually appears at the site. Not sure how that’s possible. I don’t understand this technology stuff.

            1. Weird, man… my response yesterday was inexplicably bumped up to the 2nd position… a ghost in the machine…

      2. Poetry really insists on rereading. Do you know Viktor Shklovsky’s differentiation between poetry and prose? He calls poetry “the language of impeded, distorted speech. Poetic speech is structured speech. Prose, on the other hand, is ordinary speech (Dea Prosae, the queen of correct, easy childbirth, i.e. head first)” (Theory of Prose, page 13).

        In general, novels tend to be more “transparent” than poems—written more in prose than in poetry. (Although certainly it don’t have to be that way.)

        (Shklovsky’s view of poetry is rather vast. He includes all impeded, distorted speech. Even things like outsider writing and mistranslations and misuses get included. It’s a very useful formulation! Indeed, in this view, a lot of what commonly gets called poetry isn’t really poetry—it’s prose written in verse.)

        1. Yes, I’m familiar with the Shklovsky, but I have a problem with it. He seems to treat poetry and prose as if they are distinct entities, and I’m not so sure that is true. I think there is a spectrum and most writing lies somewhere along the line rather than at either end. Certainly I’ve read an awful lot of prose that could best be described as ‘structured speech’, and a lot of poetry that makes a virtue of being ordinary, transparent speech.

          To be honest, I think the only really useful definition of a poem I’ve ever seen is that the writer decides where the line breaks occur.

          You are right, of course, that poetry really insists on rereading. But then, so does an awful lot of prose. Highly technical writing, highly theoretical writing, writing that is about as far as it is possible to get from poetry, also demands to be read and reread.

          1. “The writer decides where the line breaks occur.” I like this. With this in mind, the difference between flash fiction and prose poetry is pretty clear: In prose poetry, the writer has decided not to break the lines, while in flash fiction, no such decision has been made.

            1. I think of prose and verse as being opposites, not prose and poetry. Verse has line breaks, prose doesn’t.

              Poetry can be written in either prose or verse.

              Fiction can be written in either prose or verse.

              Either one can be written in difficult language, or transparent.

              Poetry written in prose in difficult language can at times be indistinguishable from fiction written in prose in difficult language. There are points where poetry and prose often overlap, which is why they aren’t opposites. (And which is why it’s foolish, especially in this day and age, for writing programs to segregate them.)

            2. Oh, and prose poetry is more than just not including line breaks!

              Here’s a verse poem with its line breaks taken out:

              – – – – – – – – – –
              “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

              You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

              – – – – – – – – – –

              …That doesn’t make it a prose poem. (It just makes it awful.)

              This is a prose poem:

              – – – – – – – – – –
              “The Dog and the Scent-Bottle” by Charles Baudelaire

              Come here, my dear, good, beautiful doggie, and smell this excellent perfume which comes from the best perfumer of Paris.

              And the dog, wagging his tail, which, I believe, is that poor creature’s way of laughing and smiling, came up and put his curious nose on the uncorked bottle. Then, suddenly, he backed away in terror, barking at me reproachfully.

              “Ah, miserable dog, if I had offered you a package of excrement you would have sniffed at it with delight and perhaps gobbled it up. In this you resemble the public, which should never be offered delicate perfumes that infuriate them, but only carefully selected garbage.”

              – – – – – – – – – –

              Putting line breaks in would make it, in turn, awful. It’s poetry written in prose—hence, a prose poem.

              1. By saying that what distinguishes poetry from prose is where you decide the line breaks should fall, I did not mean that removing the line breaks from a poem turned it into prose.

                You can decide that your poem goes on for 100 pages before you insert a line break, but it is still your decision where the line break falls.

                In prose, on the other hand, line breaks come where meaning or whatever dictate that a paragraph should end.

                So yes, removing the line breaks from ‘Wild Geese’, as you did, does not make it a prose poem.

                1. That makes more sense to me. (Incidentally, I was referring more to Tadd’s reaction to your comment than your original comment.) (Hi, Tadd!)

          2. > Certainly I’ve read an awful lot of prose that could best
            > be described as ‘structured speech’, and a lot of poetry
            > that makes a virtue of being ordinary, transparent speech.

            That’s no conflict with Shklovsky’s formulation. The former is (in his view) prosaic language, the latter poetic. He’s not referring to the genres (which is how most people mean it)—the way it would get filed at Barnes & Noble—but rather to the effects of the writing itself. Poetry can be prose, by his definition. (Most of the examples he gives in ToP of poetic language hail from stories and novels.)

            And it’s a spectrum, to be sure. I don’t think that he denies that?

            If the terms “prosaic” and “poetic” language trouble people, they can just substitute “transparent” and “difficult,” respectively (which is what I do. I use prose and poetry to mean other things—the form of the writing. Actually, I use prose and verse; poetry is something else).

            As for the genres themselves, the Poetry you find on the shelf at Barnes & Noble tends to be written in more difficult language than the Fiction. I mean that in a descriptive, not prescriptive way.

            …My initial comment still seems stuck in moderation.

            1. If you reformulate Shklovsky that way, I’m not sure you’re really saying anything interesting: “It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, if you use this sort of language we’ll call it poetic, if you use that sort of language we’ll call it prosaic.” Surely what he is trying to do is point to a structural difference between prose and poetry, rather than suggest a different way we might use the terms “prose’ and ‘poetry’?

              I’m also, if anything, even more troubled by substituting the words ‘transparent’ and ‘difficult’. For a start that isn’t really a binary distinction that works for me: transparent doesn’t necessarily mean not-difficult, and vice versa. For another, there are an awful lot of ideas about what constitutes ‘difficult’. Many of the pieces of writing that I find absolutely transparent, other people say are difficult. Surely, what we term either transparent or difficult can be a consequence of a lot of extraneous things, such as education, experience, and so on. The language in a lot of science fiction can be absolutely impenetrable for a lot of people not familiar with the genre, but as clear and easy as anything for the people used to reading it.

              If you carry that distinction across, does that mean that poetry becomes less poetic the more familiar you are with reading poetry?

              1. Certainly subjectivity plays a role—but I don’t think one has to get too bogged down in it. I’d argue that, in general, we can agree that some text that is more difficult, while some text is more directly communicative. Here, for instance, is the opening of Guy Davenport’s story “The Jules Verne Steam Balloon”:

                – – – – – – – – – –
                King of Prussia I in D Major, K.575

                Summer morning, awake a tick before the clock’s ring, the work of bird-charm and circadian wheels, Hugo Tvemunding, assistant Classics major and gym instructor at NFS Grundtvig, Troop Commander of Spejderkorps 235, and doctoral candidate in Theology, sat bolt upright in bed to yawn and stretch.
                —The Great Walrus, said Mariana beside him, her eyes still closed, is on the loose, grumping all rivals away from his rocks. His walruser is reared up like a gander trying to see over the hedge, but first we must say our prayers.
                Hugo recited the prayer to the creator of being that he’d said every morning since he was a very little boy, a prayer composed by his pastor father.
                —Amen, said Mariana. Franklin has slept through it all.
                —Have not, Franklin said. Amen too. Tickle me and I’ll bit.
                —My rocks, Hugo said. Franklin for all his contribution to the dialogue is still asleep.
                —Long hairy feet on the floor, said Mariana, who wore a shirt of Hugo’s for a nightgown, square pink-toed feet on the floor, shapely girl’s feet on the floor, plop, slap, and gracefully silent. Who lost a Band-Aid in the bed? Your T-shirt fits Franklin like a potato sack on a weasel.
                – – – – – – – – – –

                And here’s the opening of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code:

                – – – – – – – – – –
                Louvre Museum, Paris
                10:46 P.M.

                Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.
                As he had anticipated, a thundering iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite. The parquet floor shook. Far off, an alarm began to ring.
                The curator lay a moment, gasping for breath, taking stock. I am still alive. He crawled out from under the canvas and scanned the cavernous space for someplace to hide.
                A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”
                On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.
                – – – – – – – – – –

                The former is, by Shklovsky’s distinction (not mine) poetic, difficult text. The latter is prose. And it’s certainly a spectrum; Shklovsky never denies that.

                As for whether “transparent” text can be difficult: I’d say that the ideas behind a clear piece of writing can be difficult to understand. But that wouldn’t make the text itself poetry (as per Shklovsky’s distinction).

                Many things can make writing “difficult.” I’ve been thinking about Aram Saroyan’s famous 1986 short poem recently:


                Shklovsky also addresses subjectivity. Recall that’s raising this point (poetic writing vs. prosaic writing) only because he’s working toward another, larger point: what makes art art. For Shklovsky, it’s a work’s estranging power (ostranenie)—its ability to startle us out of automatic familiarity.

                Difficult, poetic language is one way writing has of slowing us down and making us confront the text as text, as art, rather than just zipping through it for what it’s saying. (It “makes the stone feel stony,” returns sensation to our limbs—all that.) Shklovsky identifies this as an artistic distinction.

                Very crudely put:
                defamiliarizing = art
                familiar = ordinary, everyday, not art

                And, so, yes, artworks can and do lose their power to “be poetic”—to be artistic—over time. The context in which they’re received is important. Shklovsky doesn’t address this concept very much, but he does touch on it; Adorno did a better job of developing this line of thought (with his concept that artworks lose “autonomy” over time). Hence, Beethoven, while once a radical, experimental composer, has now been subsumed by the Culture Industry, and can be used to sell cars. It would take a lot for us to be able to really hear the 9th Symphony again. (It can be done, though. But for the most part, the 9th has lost its autonomy.)

                Incidentally, the section where Shklovsky discusses all of this is Chapter One in Theory of Prose. Most of it’s online at Google Books. Apologies for not including a link, but doing so seems to tie my comments up awaiting moderation.

                My original point was simply that poetry requires more rereading than prose because poetry tends to be written in more difficult language than prose—poetry tends to be poetry! I think that’s generally true. I wasn’t trying to make any other kind of claim about the structure of poetry vs. prose. Neither does Shklovsky. (He has a lot to say about the structure of both prose and poetry as they’re generally called, but not about prose as per his distinction. That is to say, he distinguishes between “difficult” and “easy” writing very early on in Theory of Prose, and then goes on to discuss only difficult—poetic—writing. He looks at both fiction and poetry.)

                Hollander makes a similar point, as Michael observed. I was looking at Rhyme’s Reason again last night, where the man writes:

                – – – – – – – – – –
                Good verse of any sort is nevertheless only half the story of good poetry, whose essential character is what Wallace Stevens called “fictive,” and Robert Frost “ulterior,” or “saying one thing and meaning another,” or what we could simply call not being literal. Having in the past year spent time recovering from an injury, I cam to realize that “When you see someone with a cane / That person’s probably in pain.”

                These lines are clearly verse, and the proposition they assert is true. But they are not in the least poetry, for they are totally literal: there is nothing of fiction in them. Even the one possible trace of the nonliteral that might lurk therein—that pain and cane appropriately rhyme because feeling the first might lead to the second—is totally glossed into triviality by the simple literal truth of the statement.

                (pages x–xi; this is also up at Google Books)

                – – – – – – – – – –

                Ultimately, I think that Shklovsky’s distinction is an extremely useful one. It’s wise to distinguish an artwork’s artistic merit as being independent of its form. Just because it’s shaped like an artwork does not make it an artwork! This insight helps explain why so many things masquerading as artworks are in fact pap.

                Indeed, I’d go further than Shklovsky and Adorno, and locate even more of artistic identity as being subjective. See, for instance, this post:

                (I hope that including that doesn’t cause this comment to hang forever.)

          3. “Yes, I’m familiar with the Shklovsky, but I have a problem with it. He seems to treat poetry and prose as if they are distinct entities, and I’m not so sure that is true.”

            See my comment below. When Shklovsky distinguishes prose from poetry, he’s doing so in terms of their language, not their form (that difficult vs. easy language). (I agree that he could have chosen better terms for all of this. Indeed, I’m not sure what terms he chose in the original Russian. Perhaps something is lost here in translation?)

            I agree with you that there is a spectrum between easy and difficult writing. I don’t think Shklovsky disagrees, either…? He does choose more extreme examples of difficult writing to illustrate his point, but I think he does that only because he’s working toward other, larger points.

            “Certainly I’ve read an awful lot of prose that could best be described as ‘structured speech’, and a lot of poetry that makes a virtue of being ordinary, transparent speech.”

            This fits within Shklovsky’s formulation. (Indeed, you’ve basically just paraphrased him.)

            A lot of the problem here is that the same terms are being used to define different things. That’s why I subbed “difficult” for Shklovsky’s poetic, and “transparent” or “easy” for his prosaic, below.

  2. I definitely have my comfort re-reads — those that don’t take too much thought, and that I visit mostly between writing projects to clear my head. But, there are a couple of “classics,” The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 among them, that I re-read for their unsettling images of “what could be.”

  3. Greetings! Yeah, I agree with Adam. The prose poem… the novel-in-verse. And it seems to me that some forms of concrete or visual poetry make the categories of “prose” and “verse” irrelevant, but I’d have to mull this over a bit more…

    I can’t say I’m a huge fan of his poetry, but John Hollander, I think, helpfully defines _verse_ as being concerned with metre and the technique of the line while _poetry_ is concerned with rhetoric. So when Pound says literature is “language charged with meaning” and that poetry has more “charge,” he’s talking about the degree of rhetorical effect…this probably relates to what Adam is calling “difficult language.”

    But “read” is a very complicated word, Paul. And it contains differing meanings — like the way “peruse” is used in almost opposite ways. To me, re-reading is reading. I wouldn’t say I’ve “read” a text unless I’ve had a significant cognitive and aesthetic engagement and that might take many “readings.” I guess I’m always re-reading…

    1. Hey, Michael,

      I love Hollander’s distinction. That’s from Rhyme’s Reason, right? Great book. And thanks for reminding me about concrete poetry. Earlier today I was looking at some of Aram Saroyan’s work, and was reminded of this poem of his:


      Is it prose? Is it verse? Both and neither. (And in Ronald Regan’s view, it wasn’t poetry!)


      Sooner or later I’m going to post something about how poetry and fiction aren’t opposites, but rather different forms of rhetoric, each of which can employ the same devices. (I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as I’m preparing for a workshop on ways in which fiction and poetry overlap and combine.)

      And, yeah, you’re absolutely right that rereading is reading. Even when I’m reading something for the first time, I often find myself flipping around, rereading lines, pages, paragraphs. I also almost always do this: read the first few pages, then read the last few pages, then read the first few pages again, then “start reading.” And when I finish, I often go back and reread the first few pages again. It’s almost never a straightforward linear process for me—and hasn’t been since I was 14 or so.


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