Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, June 21, 2013

On Re-Reading

One of the interesting things about following blogs of several different types is that one ends up running into conversations that wouldn't necessarily occur to you in your primary milieu. I was struck by the conversation that followed when Art Carden posted over at EconTalk on the topic: Which Books Should We Re-Read?
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.

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'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:
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.

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?
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.

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.


bearing said...

Some of us (ahem) have no choice but to re-read a book in order to absorb nuances, especially a good book, because the better the book is, the more we can't stop ourselves from reading REALLY FAST in order to GET TO THE END AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS BECAUSE THE SUSPENSE! AND IT'S ALREADY 2 AM AND I HAVE TO FINISH IT BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP!

I've been known to finish a book and immediately flip back to the beginning and start reading it again for this reason.

Darwin said...

The first time I read Lord of the Rings (age 13 or 14) I finished reading it and immediately went back to the beginning and started over again. I think that may have been the only time I've done that, and it was mostly that I'd enjoyed reading it so much that I simply wanted to keep reading it.

But then, one of my frustrations as a readers is that I only have one reading speed and it's kind of slow (just a bit father than reading aloud.) I retain from a first read pretty well, but I can't seem to rush it. Though I have certainly been known to stay up late out of a need to finish before going to bed. I think my record was around 4AM, though whether I should be proud or ashamed of that I don't know.

bearing said...

I'm currently re-reading one of your recommends, The Cypresses Believe in God, for the exact reason I mentioned. I couldn't wait to get to the end and I went so fast that I couldn't keep track of what side everybody was on. (And of course I didn't discover the glossary/list of historical figures/list of characters/list of organizations until the end).

This time through, I made a photocopy of the aforementioned list of historical figures, etc., all minimized to fit on one cheat sheet, and am using it as a bookmark. MUCH EASIER.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of one of my favorite snippets of dialog from Whit Stillman's Metropolitan:

Audrey Rouget: What Jane Austen novels have you read?
Tom Townsend: None. I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it's all just made up by the author.

I think the EconTalk folks are similarly well-meaning and obtuse.

MrsDarwin said...

I am, and always have been, an extremely fast reader, and my reading experience is often the opposite of Darwin's: I can charge through a book very quickly, but need repeated readings (or flipping back through passages) to hone my comprehension. Over the years I've worked to slow down my reading so that I can take in more on the first pass.

I find that work of fictions that don't repay re-reading are generally books that weren't worth reading in the first place.

MrsDarwin said...

make that "works of fiction". I type too fast sometimes too.

Paul Zummo said...

I'm probably more like Mrs. Darwin in that I read pretty quickly - perhaps too quickly - and often benefit from a second read where I do pick up some of the nuances and details. Of course some books, no matter how many times I've read, I still need help - I'm looking at you Ulysses. Other books I re-read for pure enjoyment, including Stephen King's Misery and That Hideous Strength by Lewis.

Enbrethiliel said...


I just finished rereading a novel I first tried over a decade ago: Gagamba by F. Sionil Jose. It has been so long since my first reading that the book seems totally fresh. I feel as if the author let me read a draft of the novel back in 2001 and then I finally got to read the final edition this week. Of course, it is more accurate to say that I, as a reader, was the one in "draft form" back then. Only now am I really able to get it.

(It's worth adding that there are often rereads-within-rereads. While drafting my post on Gagamba, I think I went over each chapter at least once more.)

Anyway, I'm a huge fan of rereading. I'm still a bit floored by one woman I met who said she had made a conscious decision never to reread anything--because the time spent rereading something is time not spent reading something new. (!!!) She usually checked books out of the library, but if she had had to buy one or got it as a gift, she made it a point to give it away as soon as she was done. I can see what she means, but for me, that's like only visiting a restaurant once or never talking to someone in your city again after that first conversation.

My most reread book is probably Jane Eyre. =)

MrsDarwin said...

Paul, it's interesting you should mention Misery after I made a sweeping statement about books I wouldn't re-read being books I wish I hadn't read, because you've completely showed me up. I did read Misery once, and I wouldn't read it again, but I don't regret having done so the first time, because it was a fascinating story. But I'm no fan of horror and don't really want to encounter the violence of the novel again. But it's not a book that I would own, so I guess that still holds true. I've only read a few King novels, and each of them would fall in the "I'd read this once but not twice" category.

Anyone else have books they're glad to have read once, yet wouldn't read again?

BettyDuffy said...

Yes. Anything by Jeffrey Eugenides. I read a lot of new literary fiction because I'm always interested to see A) what's being published now and B) what's the latest conception of the world and C) is any of it worth the hype. Most of it's not.

I think Eugenides has something interesting to say, though I'm usually disappointed in his conclusions.

I just finished The Marriage Plot, and he dabbles with Catholicism in it, then begs off concluding that it's just too difficult--to care for the poor and not have sex. Argh. But I was glad to see an honest treatment of religious people.

Robert L said...

I read War & Peace once, but never again. I was so infuriated by the end of the second half, that all the love I had for the first had completely disappeared, and because of that love I hated it more than if I had never enjoyed it in the first place. I'm glad I read it, but Lord knows I'll never touch it again.

MrsDarwin said...

Robert L, it's funny you should mention War and Peace, since Betty Duffy and I have been having a long discussion about the end of the book, and Natasha in general. I agree that some of Tolstoy's authorial choices are infuriating, and in order to argue my point I've had to go back and read and re-read the Epilogue, which annoys me even further.

Paul Zummo said...

Anyone else have books they're glad to have read once, yet wouldn't read again?

One of the very books mentioned in this post - Atlas Shrugged, if only because I can honestly say I read it. Now if only I could obliterate the memory of having read it.

Funny thing about Misery is that it is the novel that made me want to be a writer. Yes, a book about a novelist named Paul being held prisoner by a psychopathic fan was what inspired me to be a writer. Go figure.

Robert L said...

It was more than just the epilogue for me, I think the tipping point was his authorial treatment of Nikolai's decision to marry Maria, where Tolstoy as the author applauds the young man for essentially going with the flow and not trying to fight against the spirit of the moment (you know, like if he had sworn to marry Sonya or something like that). I feel like if he had just allowed it to happen, I'd still dislike Nikolai, but Tolstoy's approval just made me want to throw the book into a lake. Tolstoy's treatment of Sonya in the epilogue also made me mad - the "sterile flower" comment still makes my blood boil, and I'm getting mad just writing this, ha! GETTING MAD ABOUT BOOKS.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

"Anyone else have books they're glad to have read once, yet wouldn't read again?"

Yes, Ender's Game. I'm not sorry I read it, but I'd never want to read it again.

Also the end of Gone With the Wind. I've read the rest of the novel many times, but I can never bring myself to reread the ending because Scarlett is just so stuuuuuupid!

Enbrethiliel said...


Even when I disagree with an author and really hate a book, I don't think I could ever be happy to have read something and not willing to reread it. Heck, not liking a book practically guarantees I will reread it someday, just to be able to explain why! =P

Otepoti said...

I want to add an awe-struck "Yes!" to Enbrethiliel's insight that the first time you read a great work, you, not it, are in draft form.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Yep, count me in with bearing and those who "can't stop ourselves from reading REALLY FAST in order to GET TO THE END AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS BECAUSE THE SUSPENSE! AND IT'S ALREADY 2 AM AND I HAVE TO FINISH IT BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP!"

I've done that more times than I can count.

Catholic Bibliophagist, Ender's Game is probably in my top ten most re-read books.

Darwin, I woke up this morning thinking of this blog post in conjunction with this article from Crisis about the literacy crisis in American public schools, realizing that the quotes you pull from the comments are great examples of people who are materially literate but not formally literate. It was one of those weird moments when my brain felt a need to draw connections between my recent reading while I was sleeping.