My last entry mentioned a re-reading of Atlas Shrugged, which got me thinking about the books people should not merely "read wholly, and with diligence and attention," but re-read, perhaps several times.I'd mostly pick different re-reading targets, but this is the sort of thing that I'm a sucker for, so I immediately figured I'd write a post on books that I've re-read most often and books I plan to re-read soon. But first I started skimming down the comments, and that's where I ran into the difference between this audience and that of some of the more bibliophilic blogs I normally read. Commenter Hadur writes:
Which books (fiction and non-fiction) fit the bill? Off the top of my head, I'd say Atlas Shrugged, Les Miserables, CS Lewis's The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity, 1984, Animal Farm, The Brothers Karamazov (which I've read once but which I know I'll be re-reading carefully), and obviously a bunch of others I'm forgetting. In economics, I'd put Mises's Human Action and Hayek's Individualism and Economic Order at the top of the list. I'm also planning to read and re-read as much of the collected works of Adam Smith as I can over the next year or so.
I can understand why some non-fiction books might be objectively worthy of multiple readings, because the ideas contained therein are important and perhaps not obvious the first time around. Of course it is highly arguable whether understanding a non-fiction book itself is actually important, or if what's more important is to understand the ideas therein: why re-read Adam Smith when you can get the same from reading the secondary literature on it?
But are any fiction books truly "important" in the same sense? Seems a lot more subjective: people should re-read the books they think they will derive pleasure from re-reading. Perhaps some novels are so complex that they typically have to be read several time before the reader "gets it" to the full extent the author intended (or even beyond), but it seems like an equally rational response to those books, in the presence of limited time, is to toss them.
F. Lynx Pardinus responded:
I think you get more than just "the same" from reading the secondary literature. I had a conversation a few days ago: A (religious) relative had decided to re-study one of the books in the Bible for the umpteenth time. I suggested that, instead of limiting herself to her own perspective, she grab a few religious and historical commentaries on the text from the local library to open herself to other perspectives. I would imagine it's a similar experience reading a few pieces of secondary literature on, say, Adam Smith.And Hadur replied:
I am inclined to agree. I think that reading the great books or the "classics" is more or less a form of conspicuous consumption. People do it to appear smart or cultured or what have you.These bring up some interesting questions about re-reading, or indeed reading, at all -- questions I wouldn't normally even think about because the value of reading and re-reading seems so blindingly obvious to me.
Literally millions of people have read these books before you. Chances are that at least a few of them are one or more of the following (i) smarter than you; (ii) a more insightful reader than you; (iii) a better writer/summarizer of others than either you or the author of the great book, and a few of them probably left behind secondary literature.
Should we, as people who read a free market blog, not defer to those experts to produce our understanding of great books, much as we would defer to an efficient pin factory for our pin-making, instead of making pins at home?
Reading Primary vs. Secondary Sources
I think one can come at this question in terms of information, an approach which might be familiar to the people bringing the question up. Certainly, it makes sense that, if a work is acknowledged as "great" there are probably a lot of people who have read the work before you and written about it. Many of them may be smarter than you or know more about the general topic than you, so it stands to reason that reading their works about the work itself may be of benefit to you. However, you, as an outsider, don't have a good way of knowing which of these people are insightful and which are howlingly wrong-headed, and if you never read the great work itself, you'll have no basis for assessing how well their assessments of the work align with the work itself. It can take often take more expert knowledge to ascertain who is (to your mind) the best expert to read on a great work as simply to read the great work itself.
Arguably, the best balance, if this is a great work you care about a lot, is to read the work, then read several pieces about it by people who are acclaimed as experts, and then read the work again with their commentary in mind. This allows you the chance to benefit from their expertise while grounding it in the reality of the work.
What Do You Read Fiction For?
Underlying these and several other comments, it seemed to me, are varying ideas as to why one would read fiction anyway. Do we read fiction only for entertainment? Can fiction books convey ideas, or do we merely read them to find out what happens?
Arguably, some books are simply pleasure reads. We read them to find out what happens, to escape to another place, to follow some interesting characters. Sometimes we read in order to vicariously experience what it's like to live in some time or place very different from our own. Also, we at times read for the sheer enjoyment of experiencing a good author's prose.
However, I would say the primary reason for reading fiction, to my mind, is that in fiction we experience a distilled and meaningful version of reality. A fiction author takes character, events, and indeed the whole world, and zeros in on the things which he thinks are significant. As such, in a sense, the author, by choosing what to convey, is telling us: This is what things mean. This is how people work. This is how the world works. This is what turns events into a story.
In real life, we are constantly bombarded by events and sensations. Figuring out what things mean and where things are going can be difficult. Fiction seeks to answer these questions by selecting those things that are significant, those things that make experiences a story, and presenting only those.
As such, we read fiction in order to understand something about the world -- or at least, how the author thinks the world is. In this regard the purpose may be very similar to that in reading non-fiction, but the process is very different. In non-fiction, the author tells us "this is what happened" or "this is how the world words" and we, the readers, try to compare that explanation to our experience of life and see if we agree. In fiction, the author shows us the world, but a world filtered down to only those events which are meaningful. We look at that world-in-small and draw conclusions from it. Based on our own beliefs and experiences, those conclusions may or may not be the same as the authors. Thus, fiction is a more wide-open means of communication than non-fiction, though at the same time in some ways a more subtle one. A sufficiently good author can create a world real enough that different people will draw different things from it, and the same person will draw different things from it at different points in his life.
Why Re-Read Fiction?
That last point points toward one of the obvious reasons for re-reading a good book. Re-reading is not simply a matter of refreshing one's mind as to what happens in the story. Coming at a good story again, one notices new things because one's interplay with the reality presented in the story is different. You get new things out of re-reading a novel because you are different than when you read it before.
One way in which you are different is moderately trivial, but it can result in catching meaning and themes you might not have before. When you are re-reading, you already know "what happens" and so you have a certain leisure to look around -- just as when you are diving a familiar route you have more opportunity to look at the scenery than when you are trying to navigate some unfamiliar place for the first time. Thus, you get new things out of a good book when you re-read simply because you are different as a reader.
However, a book can also benefit from re-reading when one is at a different stage of life, when one comes back with different experiences and beliefs. This different background will cause you to notice things and draw conclusions that you might not have before.
The book that I've re-read the most times in my life -- leaving aside the picture books which I've read aloud scores of times for the benefit of various young listeners -- is probably Lord of the Rings. It's been five or six years since I last read it, though, and I'm starting to have the urge to read it again, though I don't know how soon I'll have the chance. Other most re-read novels would include Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time novels, and Tim Powers' Declare and Last Call. I'm sure I've read LotR more than six times, and the others listed at least 3-4 each.
I haven't been re-reading much recently, because I've been trying to get through a very long novel-research reading list as quickly as possible, but the next re-read I have planned is a third pass through War & Peace. Some of Tolstoy's philosophizing about history (and life in general) drove me up the wall, yet overall I think he did a very good job of writing the Big Historical Novel. Since I'm trying to plan a Big Historical Novel myself, I figure it's something I should pass through again with a special eye towards how it's constructed.