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July 27, 2006

More Than Once

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

David Chute makes a list of the books that he has read more than once. I like many of the books David likes, but I'm not much of a re-reader myself. My own version of such a list would be very short: "The Charterhouse of Parma," and that's about it. (Read this translation.) Oh, and "Candy." And "The Long Goodbye." OK, and "Winnie the Pooh." But that's about it. How long would your own list be?



posted by Michael at July 27, 2006


This comment should utterly destroy whatever cred I have left in these here parts. But, in all honesty, I re-read books when I'm sick (and don't want to tax my energy level) or just for the recreational hell of it. Call them "comfort books."

  • "To Lose a Battle" by Alistair Horne (about the Fall of France).
  • "Early Supersonic Fighters of the West" (and others in this series) by Bill Gunston, where he delves into engineering/design and defense procurement philosophies behind the planes I admired as a kid.
  • The history of American car styling by David Holls and Michael Lamm; my books are boxed for moving, so I can't give the exact title.
  • "Grant and Lee" (hope that's the title) by General J.F.C. Fuller. He thinks Grant was the better general.
  • "War Plan Orange" by Edward S. Miller: The history of U.S. Navy war plans, 1910-40, for a possible conflict with Japan ... and how they compared with the actual war.

There are others, but these ought to give you the flavor of my re-reading habits.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 27, 2006 5:47 PM

"At Dawn We Slept" by Gordon Prange

"Monty: The Making of a General" by Nigel Hamilton

"Master of the Senate" and "The Power Broker" by Robert Caro

"5000 Nights at the Opera" by Rudolf Bing

"A Senate Journal" and "Advise and Consent" by Allen Drury

"Memoirs" by Hector Berlioz

"Shelley's Heart" by Charles McCarry

"Guard of Honor" and "The Just and the Unjust" by James Gould Cozzens

"De Valera" by Tim Pat Coogan

"The Cruel Sea" by Nicholas Monserrat

"The Fall of the House of Habsburg" by Edward Crankshaw

"The Keys to the Kingdom" by A. J. Cronin

"Ring Resounding" by John Culshaw

"Fate is the Hunter" by Ernest K. Gann

"The Sparrow" and "The Children of God" by Mary Doria Russell

"The Bedford Incident" by Mark Rascovich

"The Wild Ass's Skin" by Balzac

"Intern" by "Doctor X" (Alan Nourse)

"The Gulag Archipelago" by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

"Etiquette" by Emily Post (1934 edition)

Posted by: Greg Hlatky on July 27, 2006 6:21 PM

I'm an avid reader and like topics like this. And in case anyone cares:

The Great Gatsby - Fitzgerald
The Age of Innocence - Wharton
A Tale of Two Cities – Dickens
Great Expectations – Dickens (re-reading it now)
Bleak House – Dickens
Henry V - Shakespeare
My Antonia – Cather
The Call of the Wild – London
Any Philip Marlowe mystery - Chandler
The Things They Carried – O’Brien

And Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories, Gardner’s Perry Mason pulp novels, and Alistair MacLean’s early stuff (The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, Night Without End, When Eight Bells Toll, etc.). Read them as a kid and still like to go back and re-read them now and again.

Posted by: Bob on July 27, 2006 8:44 PM

'The Great Terror' by Robert Conquest
'Lolita' by Nabokov
'Bend in the River' by Naipaul
'The Great Gatsby' by Fitzgerald
'Black Mischief' by Waugh
'Martin Dressler' by Millhauser
'Humbolt's Gift', 'Herzog', & 'Ravelstein' by Bellow

Every book ever written by Bill James the baseball writer (not the mystery writer).

William F. Buckley's sailing books.

Posted by: grandcosmo on July 27, 2006 8:47 PM

Holy crow: people are reading Robert Conquest and A. Solzhenitsyn for the second and third times! I used to think of myself as a reader, but I'm feeling cowed now.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 27, 2006 9:19 PM

Some books are re-readable, others not. Here are some of mine:

Morte D'Urban by J F Powers

A Legacy by Sybille Bedford

Huckleberry Finn

The Great Gatsby

All of Jane Austen

I re-read the Jeeves stories by P G Wodehouse so many times that I positively could not read them again. I wish I could.

I re-read Anna Karenina, but could not re-read Middlemarch, one of my favorite books; it just felt like too big a commitment. Maybe someday.

Posted by: Miriam on July 27, 2006 9:24 PM

The Innocents Abroad - Mark Twain
I And Thou - Martin Buber
The Perennial Philosophy - Aldous Huxley
Huckleberry Finn - Twain
Gielgud: An Actor and His Time - John Gielgud
The House of God - Samuel Shem
The Tangled Wing - Melvin Konner
One Man's Meat - E.B. White
A Pleasing Terror: supernatural stories of M.R. James
Julius Caesar
The Silent Miaow - Paul Gallico
Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow - Ray Bradbury
The Woman In the Surgeon's Body - Joan Cassell

Posted by: Flutist on July 27, 2006 10:55 PM

"War and Peace" was even better the second time around, and better than "Anna Karinina (sp?)" too when read back to back -- it has got to be the greatest novel ever written (some old cliches are true . . . )

OTH, James Joyce is a bust the second time around, or, in the case of Ulysses, 7th time around for me (6 times before I turned 30). "A Portrait of the Artist" in particular comes off a jejune, pretentious. I mean, seriously, what does it mean to aspire to "fashion in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race"?

Posted by: Lea Luke on July 28, 2006 12:08 AM

I Don't do much re-reading either. However, every few years I find myself dipping back into Charles Bukowski's "Factotum." That one always seems to put things back in perspective.

Posted by: Chip Smith on July 28, 2006 1:17 AM

For me, qualifying for a complete re-reading takes a special combination of style and content. I tend to go back and read favorite sections otherwise (for example, there's no way I'm going start to finish through "Infinite Jest" again). That said, here are some multiple (>3x) favorites:

Fiction: "Pale Fire" by Nabokov, "Lucky Jim" by Kingsley Amis", "Money" by his son Martin, George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels, Borges's short stories, Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday", and Waugh's "Decline and Fall".

Non-fiction: I've read "Germans" by George Bailey several times, and hope someday to meet someone who's heard of it. I've also revisited large sections of Tom Wolfe, H.L. Mencken, and George Orwell, especially "The Road to Wigan Pier".

But it's odd how re-readings work. As with Miriam above, I seem to have lost the ability to go back to Wodehouse, although I still admire his books. I'm giving the Flashman books a few year's rest at the moment, because I'm worried about the same thing happening there. I've always enjoyed H. F. Saint's "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" as well, but my last re-reading had a weirdly definitive feeling to it, quite different than before, so I'm letting that one go fallow for a few years, too.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on July 28, 2006 5:52 AM

I enjoyed Middlemarch in my 20s: in my 40s couldn't get anywhere with it. "Lucky Jim": I do agree with DL. Gibbon rereads very well. So do poets, including Betjeman, Larkin, Kipling, McCaig.

Posted by: dearieme on July 28, 2006 6:43 AM

The Age of Innocence
Brideshead Revisited

Posted by: beloml on July 28, 2006 7:57 AM

When I set up my booklog, one of the reasons was to get an insight into how much of my reading is rereading. Turns out, at least 40% of the 250+ books I complete a year are rereads.

I will go so far to say that, due to the speed of my reading normally, rereading may even be the real thing.

Though I also tend to reread no-brainers like detective stories, just to give my normal stream of thoughts a rest.

Posted by: ijsbrand on July 28, 2006 8:06 AM

Feeling theatrical lately, I've been reading a play a day for the last month or two. Of all the ones I've read, I definitely plan on re-visiting The Importance of Being Earnest, John Webster's The White Devil, Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd, and the entire Carl Mueller translation of Aeschylus, which is magnificent. Check 'em out!

Normally I only reread stuff that's either difficult or useful - think Ludwig von Mises or Strunk & White and the like.

Posted by: Brian on July 28, 2006 9:25 AM

"Down & Out in London & Paris"-George Orwell
"Catch-22"- Jpseph Heller
"Something Happened"-Joseph Heller
"Thin Ice"-Bruce McCall
"Songbook"-Nick Hornby
"Bridge on the Drina"-Ivo Andric
"Question of Bruno"-Aleksander Hemon
"Sot-Weed Factor"-John Barth
"Me Talk Pretty One Day"-David Sedaris
"Nervous People and Other Satires"-Mikhail Zoschenko
"Blood of the Lamb"-Peter DeVries
"Tess of the D'Ubervilles"-Thomas Hardy
"About a Boy"-Nick Hornby
"Joshua Then & Now"-Mordecai Richler
"The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin"-Vladimir Voinovich
"Good Soldier Svejk"-Jaroslav Hacek
"Another Roadside Attraction"-Tom Robbins

Not counting semi-re-readings or returns to books for re-reading of specific chapters.

Posted by: DarkoV on July 28, 2006 9:47 AM

I've read a number of books more than once, but the book that I have reread most - probably 8 times at least, usually around Easter - is "The Winter of Our Discontent" by John Steinbeck. I feel that I know Ethan Allen Hawley better than I know a lot of friends. It's a short read and sort of shows that when you make that first proverbial "deal with the Devil", you tend to become a repeat customer, even if the price goes up.

Posted by: D Flinchum on July 28, 2006 9:50 AM

Leave it to Psmith - PG Wodehouse- again and again and again -i just love going into that world!

I read the fountain head five times in my twenties, in my thirties I now can't imagine i ever liked that crap.

Posted by: a reader on July 28, 2006 9:57 AM

You know, that reminds me to add to the list I gave above. For some reason, I just re-read Sinclair Lewis's "It Can't Happen Here" for the fourth time last month. I'd read it first when I was 19, then went back to it in 1992 because Ross Perot reminded me so much of the book's Buzz Windrip.

And two more times since then - I'm still trying to figure out why, because it's an odd, not-all-that-well-written book. Everyone in it speaks as if they'd only read Sinclair Lewis novels their whole lives. But they're something weirdly compelling about it. . .

Posted by: Derek Lowe on July 28, 2006 10:03 AM

We've got some serious reading going on! It occurs to me looking over these lists that I do do some re-reading, just seldom of entire books. I'll re-read poems, essays, and stories every now and then ... Or I might thumb around a bit in a novel or reference book or history/science book that I've liked. But almost never will I re-read an entire book. Short attention span, I suppose. Maybe also a very slow reading speed ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 28, 2006 10:03 AM

Aside from children's books I've read to my kids countless times and the "classics" as a student and then a teacher, I never re-read books. I don't know why. I probably should.

Posted by: the patriarch on July 28, 2006 10:13 AM

I guess I mostly re-read crime/detective fiction:

The Maltese Falcon, The Lady in the Lake, The High Window, The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Goodbye Look, Comeback (by Richard Stark), Out on the Rim and Chinaman's Chance (by Ross Thomas).

I've read Philip Roth's The Ghostwriter twice.

I've read lots of Pauline Kael and Manny Farber's stuff over and over.

And, um, not too much else. Generally, when I read I'm looking for "something new" and if I want the feeling of revisiting an old friend I'll re-watch a movie.

Posted by: Jon Hastings on July 28, 2006 10:50 AM

I don't know if it's entirely reading speed; I'm a plodder, especially when compared with the 250+ books a year that ijsbrand says he consumes. 250+!??!? That's unreal, I mean, if he really is reading, not flipping pages. My hat's off to him.

At least for me, as for some of the other folks commenting, it's more of a comfort thing re-reading the books. It's amazing how often I'm re-reading and memories of what I was like or who I was with come strolling back into my head when I'm ensconced in a particular book. Plus, I tend to write in my books, so a re-read will reveal peculiar observations of the "Waht was I thinking?" order.

Come to think of it, all of this re-reading is making me feel as if I'm not getting out much! or not allowing enough new reading material into my life. But the latter gets into the dangerous territoty Donald discussed here

Posted by: DarkoV on July 28, 2006 10:58 AM

As a kid, I re-read books all the time. Heinlein's Starship Troopers, several times; Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom books; Dune. I read War and Peace twice as a kid. It took months. It is indeed the greatest novel of all time, as Luke says above.

Time is too short to re-read books in their entirety, though like Michael, I pick at books I have already read.

As an adult the only book I know I read twice is Brideshead Revisited. It was much better the second time. I want to reread Sword of Honor by Waugh. I read 1984 in 4th grade, and it was a fundamentally formative book in my thinking. I then reread it again a few years ago and I was extremely surprised at how good it was. I had read almost everything else by Orwell by then, and 1984 is a summary of everything else he'd ever written.

Posted by: Lexington Green on July 28, 2006 11:25 AM

"The Maltese Falcon"! It comes back to me now: I've read "The Maltese Falcon" twice.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 28, 2006 11:43 AM

I re-read all sorts of stuff, sometimes for comfort and sometimes because of the density of the original. Of course, some of that latter re-reading might actually qualify as "studying" rather than pleasure reading. Nietzsche falls into both camps. I've ended up re-reading parts of a number of books on, say, cultural history repeatedly to really digest them and in order to construct my own synthesis out of the book's raw materials. I spent nearly a week on vacation recently reading and re-reading "The Marketing of Modernism" to be sure I actually followed the author's line of argument.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 28, 2006 12:27 PM

I second the James Gould Cozzens and Sinclair Lewis mentions. I've read a number of their novels multiple times.

I'm surprised that nobody seems to have mentioned Moby-Dick. I've read that so many times that I've lost count.

I also have derived great pleasure from re-reading the unjustly neglected horror novel The Pines, by Robert Dunbar.

Posted by: jp on July 28, 2006 4:12 PM

Add me to the list of avid re-readers. I read “Ulysses” every other year and “The Odyssey” about every six months or so (various translations, though I have a fondness for Fitzgerald). I recently finished reading two different translations of “Antigone” in succession (in part because aspects of the ancient tragedy reminded me of the recent Terri Schiavo case). Then there is a rotating core of Shakespeare, some Dickens (yea “A Tale of Two Cities”), various Sherlock Holmes stories, and the Aubrey-Martin novels. Not too long ago I re-read two SF classics, Alfred Bester’s “The Demolished Man” and “The Stars My Destination.”

Posted by: Alec on July 29, 2006 7:29 AM

My God! I forgot Lucky Jim! also:

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes--Colin Wilson (?)

Heaven's my Destination by Thornton Wilder--good picture of life in the thirties.

Posted by: Miriam on July 29, 2006 5:28 PM

I reread some long-form poetry (Paradise Lost, The Ring and the Book) and Shakespeare, but not all that many novels. I wonder if I can think of ten that I've *thoroughly* reread?

Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Well, okay, I thought salvation lay within.

Pale Fire, three times with somewhat different manner of reading. Lolita and Ada I've gone back to frequently, but never a second time front-to-back, I think, at least not without being distracted by a dozen other books.

Some Agatha Christies, as least Five Little Pigs and Cards on the Table. As I get older, I've come to appreciate the form of virtue ethics unfolded by Poirot in the novels of the 30s and 40s. Taken as a whole, there's a profundity that each lacks as an individual whodunit.

Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins, which I loved as a teenager and recently reread. A bit too crunchy in places, yet still very fresh.

Siddharta, once in English and once in German.

The Plague, at least twice in English although I own and have partly read a French copy.

The Brothers Karamazov, I think. Maybe I've just reread select passages enough times.

A Void, a.k.a. La Disparition, two run-throughs of a brilliant Adair translation. I may with qualms try it in its original, but not today.

I suppose that's it. Six, plus some fast-reading mysteries. I've read a fair number of classics and recent work, but have rarely been tempted to read a novel twice.

I really prefer the short form of poetry and "popular" music genres. For example, I've probably read almost all of Rilke's poems a handful of times, and some of them closer to a hundred. I like to find perfect poems, perfect songs, and internalize them, to hit that gestalt. Novels as a whole are nice occasional experiences, and I like to have the cultural reference points, but they just don't pay off enough at the micro-level to make rereadings very rewarding for me.

Posted by: J. Goard on July 29, 2006 5:40 PM

Outside of required reading, I don't do much re-reading except as bits and pieces--like favorite passages. Other than that, I find re-reading to be a terrible waste of time. I'm sure that there are so many other great books out there that I haven't read that it seems completely pointless to spend the rest of my life dwelling on just a handful of favorite volumes.

Posted by: sya on July 29, 2006 10:07 PM

For reasons buried deep within me, I am always far more inclined to re-read a book than to read a new one, and to re-watch a movie than to watch a new one. In the same way, when I travel I prefer to go places I have been before than to visit new places. I think it's a depth v. breadth thing.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on July 31, 2006 3:14 PM

I've re-read a lot of books, partly I think because I'm kind of dim. I don't always get the full picture the first time, or there are connections I don't make the first time. There are many times I've read a book twice back to back; in fact that's nothing unusual for me. There are times I'll finish a book and just know that my attention slackened here or there and so I go back to it. For example, right now I'm almost through reading "Age of Innocence" for the first time, and it's rather slowly dawned on me that this hermetic 19th Century New York world Wharton is essaying so brilliantly is a rather incestuous sort of tribe, and that if I read it again, paying close attention to the relation of everyone to each other -- and not just whether Newland Archer will nail Madame Olenska -- then in the end I'll have a much fuller, richer experience. On second or third readings I'm more alert to everything and not as easily overwhelmed by the newness. The first reading is often like a preparation for the second time.

Nabokov addressed this in one of his lectures, that reading a great book once is a little like looking at a painting for a few minutes, while reading it again is like looking at it for an hour. (Which, by the way, I find impossible to do.) He said -- and I wish I had the book here so I could quote it directly -- that there are often grades of pleasure that come with re-reading, and a great book may hit some sort of nirvana of intellectual stimulation on the third or fourth go-round. That is certainly true with his novels, like "Lolita" or "Pale Fire," which actually demand being read several times, really -- in the case of "Lolita," for example, you become much more attuned on subsequent readings as to the whole level of unreality, of just where, in Humbert's mad confessional, reality ends and bullshit begins; the whole thing is so fantastically structured that you see not so much a story of a man manipulating a young girl as a story of a man being manipulated by an author who has placed him in a hellish funhouse.

Nabokov was very big on re-reading, as you can tell. When he was teaching "Anna Karenina," he once told the class something like: the exam is in three weeks, so you still have time to re-read the book. Now that's what you call a demanding professor -- he expects undergrads in a 19th Century fiction class to read all 900 pages twice, God bless him.

Anyway, here are some I love going back over.

Oscar Wilde, "Picture of Dorian Gray"

E.M. Forster, "Howard's End," "A Room With a View," "Where Angels Fear to Tread," and "A Passage to India."

Joyce, "Ulysses"

Proust, "Swann's Way"

Nabokov, "Pale Fire," "Lolita," "Invitation to a Beheading," "Speak, Memory," and a number of the stories.

Tolstoy, "Anna Karenina"

Donald Antrim, "The Verificationist"

Adams, "The Education of Henry Adams"

Faulkner, "Absalom, Absalom." (I once had a plan to read this every year, but it's fallen off.)

Goethe, "Elective Affinities."

Dickens, "Bleak House."

Pynchon, "Gravity's Rainbow."

I occasionally go on Shakespeare jags where I read a play over and over, sometimes supplementing it with movie or audio versions. "King Lear," "As You Like It," and "The Winter's Tale" are favorites.

Posted by: Rodney Welch on August 1, 2006 8:47 AM

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