Pliny’s Library: Why We Reread Books

I prefer old Penguins!

Pliny, the  Roman orator, politician, lawyer, and writer (ca. 61 A.D.-113 A.D), wrote in a letter that he kept his books in a cupboard shaped like a public library at his villa.  These books, he explained, were special.  They were “not books for reading but for rereading again and again,” or, in the original Latin, non legendos libros sed lectitandos.

And there we have it:  Pliny is a member of our rereading club.

Yes, I also prefer rereading. We do not, we confess, want to read Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, though  Ron Charles at The Washington Post and other critics hail it.   Though I loved Kingsolver’s earlier novels, especially Prodigal Summer, which reads like a 21st-century novel by Edith Wharton,  I am still recovering from her last novel, Unsheltered, which seems to be a series of political opinions pasted on a visible outline of two linked stories about struggling middle-class families. To be fair, I learned a lot about college debt, Cuba, the fall of the middle class, the resistance to Darwin, the pursuit of tenure, health insurance, and the crumbling American dream.  But it was less subtle than Kingsolver’s usual writing.

Some rereaders are even more comically critical of new books than I am. One cranky gentleman of the press who, along with other writers, was supposed to recommend new books for holiday shoppers, made the following irascible admission.  

Nothing that’s reached me in recent times do I wish to keep on the shelf and reread; nothing of the calibre of Kingsley Amis, Beryl Bainbridge or Muriel Spark exists. I’m sorry she died and everything, but I did think Hilary Mantel frightfully overpraised. Her novels will be placed by history next to Mrs Humphry Ward’s – stock impossible to shift in antiquarian bookshops.

Heavens, I thought.  He is far more severe than I am. Even I have read a few good new books this year, possibly six or seven.  And, I confess, I am fond of Mrs. Humphry Ward.

Yet I do prefer rereading classics and older books to reading new books.  I am happy to curl up with the cranky gentleman’s favorites, Kinglsey Amis and Muriel Spark, or some of my own favorites, which I will recommend at the end.

Standards of writing in every century are low, but they are dropping fast in our miserable times.  Why are books so long now? Are people buying by the pound?

And why does the Acknowledgements page go on for pages and pages?   The writers express gratitude to teams of editors and their many, many friends, whole writing groups, and first readers.  Too many cooks…?  How does this process work?

But I do adore books, and let me recommend a few of my favorite dead 20th-century authors ,  Molly Keane,  Alice Thomas Ellis, and Jean Stafford.  The great novelists have complex ideas, know how to shape dramatic scenes, write convincing dialogue, develop a distinctive voice, and interweave serpentine themes into  their magical narratives.

And now let me return to my very good, very old book:  a rereading, naturally!

Do You Enjoy Rereading?  And If So, What?

I am a devoted rereader.  Give me a Brontë or an Austen for the nth time and I am intoxicated.  My most extreme rereading phase was the decade when I began War and Peace every New Year’s Day and finished by the next New Year’s Eve.  

Occasionally I reread a book  I dislike.  What did I miss, I wonder, when everyone else is crazy about it?   I recently failed to finish a rereading of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play It As It Lays, which I have been assured is a masterpiece. Beautiful prose, but perhaps better-employed in her stunning essays. 

In Play It As It Lays, the wilted heroine, Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-uh),  is so limp she can barely get off the patio where she sleeps under towels.  She spends her days speeding along the freeway and having a nervous breakdown.   If she isn’t on the freeway by ten,  she loses her rhythm, she informs us.  As a non-driver, I was annoyed when she kicked off her sandals to feel her bare feet on the pedal as she zooms at 100 miles an hour.

“Just give her a ticket,” I muttered.

The novel is not Didion’s forte.

I recently reread some of Didion’s essays, and found them extremely conservative, though I’d admired them on a first reading.  Her essays on the Women’s Movement of the 1970s and Doris Lessing are so venomous they made my hair stand on end.  And I no longer consider her stylized essay, “Slouching towards Bethlehem,’ a masterpiece.  Somehow, I no longer share her point-of-view.

A rereading gone wrong.

Back to rereading:  there are avid rereaders, and other readers who fiercely disapprove of rereading.   Tom Lamont at The Observer is in my camp, though he is something of an apologist.  He says “Rereading is therapy, despite the accompanying dash of guilt, and I find it strange that not everybody does it. Why wouldn’t you go back to something good? I return to these novels for the same reason I return to beer, or blankets or best friends.” 

Peter Damien at Book Riot shares my philosophy that a reader can appreciate a book more on a second or third or whatever reading. 

I re-read endlessly, and I think of it as nothing different than reading a book for the first time. I maintain a reading journal of books I’ve read and how long it’s taken me, and there are many titles repeated throughout the journal. I don’t differentiate them. I think it’s as completely integral to the reading process as the first time through a book.”

The  Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda at The Washington Post is not a fan of rereading. The only time he rereads is when he is teaching a book or writing an introduction for a book.  He writes, I loved Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, but could the analogous Chinese classic, Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone, be just as good? Like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I want to run and find out.”

Tom Thurston at The Guardian believes rereading is pretentious.  In fact, he doesn’t believe people really reread. He thinks they say it to show off. 

… nothing will make you more insecure than the person who casually drops it into conversation that this summer, as well as a couple of weighty war histories, Julian Barnes’s latest and a fascinating new translation of the Qur’an, he’ll be re-reading Anna Karenina. While it doesn’t leave much time for snorkelling or hammock snoozing after a good lunch, there’s no reason why people shouldn’t choose to bury themselves under a pile of books on holiday. But there is one little verb that’s inexcusable, wherever you are, whatever you’re reading this summer. “Re-read”. Now hear this: anyone who talks about re-reading a book is arrogant, narrow-minded or dim.

Wow, he is fierce!

Do you enjoy rereading?  If so, what?   If not, why not?

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