As I write this, my daughter Maya and son Jackson, eleven and nine, respectively, are sitting in the den, listening to an audio book: HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN. They are enthralled and amused, falling silent when things get scary and laughing hysterically when something funny happens. To listen to them, you’d think they were having the time of their lives.
And I swear to God, this has to be the 463rd time they’ve listened to this book.
They’ve listened to all the other Harry Potter audio books just as often, finding each no less consistently entertaining. And they re-read the actual Potter books just as zealously. Clearly, J.K. Rowling’s writing (and Jim Dale’s reading) loses nothing in the way of impact the second, third, or 265th time around.
This strikes me as incredible, because I am a devout one-time-only reader. I never re-read anything. God knows I’ve read enough books deserving of a second or third read — a lack of worthy titles isn’t the problem. So what is?
- Time. Every minute you spend re-reading a book you’ve already had the pleasure of knowing is a minute you can’t devote to something new and possibly just as remarkable. That motto booksellers like to put on T-shirts — SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME — rings all too true for me. I live in constant fear of missing out on a genuinely fantastic, undiscovered read somewhere, and I don’t want to blow it by giving CHILDHOOD’S END a second look, especially if, ultimately, that second look only serves to prove that one should have been enough.
Which leads me to my next reason for avoiding second reads. . .
- Dashed expectations. Almost thirty years ago, I read Elmore Leonard’s novel STICK and loved it. It changed my life. My memory of it is that of a masterpiece, a how-to in crime writing. But is it really? If I re-read the book today and found it to be something short of all that, I’d be heartbroken. Disillusioned.
As I’ve aged and matured, I’ve become a more discerning reader. Harder to please and dazzle. Turns of phrase that I used to find mesmerizing irk me now as false and dissonant. My standards for genius have been raised considerably.
Granted, in this particular example, because it’s Elmore Leonard we’re talking about, it’s possible I’d find STICK to be even better than I originally thought. It’s for sure I’d still enjoy it. But why take the risk? Why mess with perfection, even if it’s a perfection based solely on the vagaries of memory? Wouldn’t my time be better spent seeking out the next Elmore Leonard, wherever he or she may be, instead?
- Speed. Sadly, regardless of whether I’m doing it for business or for pleasure, I read the same way I write: at a snail’s pace. Even when a book grabs me, I take it in slooooowly. So the amount of time I invest in a book usually runs somewhere between a week to thirty days. That’s just the way I roll. If I could read something and enjoy it in two or three days, tops, maybe I could afford to do more re-reading. But I can’t. So I don’t.
Needless to say, not every reader has the same aversion to re-reading that I do. Some think life is too short NOT to re-read, depending on the book or books in question. Why deny yourself the pleasure of a great read, these people ask, just because it’s not entirely new to you? Surely, some novels are not only up to the challenge of re-examination, they can in fact only be fully appreciated that way. Just as some films require multiple viewings to be completely understood, some works of fiction demand multiple reads before all their surprises and nuances can be perceived and savored.
Hmmm. That’s a pretty convincing argument, even if I had to make it myself. Convincing enough that I find myself wondering if it isn’t time to reconsider my hard-and-fast position on this question. Maybe I’d see things in a second reading of STICK that I missed the first time; things that would suggest, not that the novel is less than I’ve always thought it was, but more.
Because I remain dubious — okay, I’m a chickenshit — I’m going to enter into this re-reading business very carefully. Tentatively. So I’ll be limiting my re-reads to three titles to start. These are the books I’ve always been tempted to re-experience, having had them blow me away the first time, that I most suspect will not disappoint under the merciless glare of a highly anticipated second read. In no particular order, they are:
- IN COLD BLOOD – Truman Capote
I was only fourteen when I originally read this, so my impression of it as a work of literary genius could be colored by the naïveté of youth. But I doubt it. What I know for sure is that this was the first book I could not put down once I started it, and when it was over, I knew I had just read something that was on a completely different level from all I had read before.
- DARKER THAN AMBER – John D. MacDonald
This was my first Travis McGee novel, and I only sought it out because it served as the basis for a movie of the same name, starring Rod Taylor, that I enjoyed quite a bit back in the late sixties. Little could I have guessed how much better than the film the book would turn out to be, and that I would go on to devour every other McGee title by MacDonald I could get my hands on.
I’ve never heard this particular title described as one of the best in the series, so it may ultimately disappoint, but I’m curious to see how much of MacDonald’s brilliance I actually got a glimpse of by reading this McGee first.
- THE HORSE LATITUDES – Robert Ferrigno
I remember this as a terrific read overall, an Elmore Leonard-esque tour de force with an LSD twist, and I have always believed its first two paragraphs make for the greatest opening to a thriller I have ever read. Check this out:
It didn’t take much to set him off these days — laughter from the apartment below, a flash of blond hair out of the corner of his eye. Or, late at night, the sound of two car doors slamming in quick succession. Especially that. He imagined them walking to his place or her place, both of them eager but trying not to let it show, holding hands, tentatively at first, then the man slipping his arm around her waist while she smiled and laid her head on his shoulder.
There were nights when Danny missed Lauren so bad that he wanted to take a fat man and throw him through a plate-glass window. Just for the sound of it. Instead, he went swimming in the bay.
I don’t know when I’ll get around to these re-reads, exactly, but I plan to do a follow-up blog post on my reactions as soon as I do. So stay tuned. In the meantime:
Questions for the class: Do you re-read, and if so, how often? Do some books disappoint on re-examination, or do they always live up to your time-held reverence for them? If you don’t re-read, what are your reasons for abstaining? And if you could only re-read three books out of all those you’ve read in your lifetime, what would they be?
One Final Word: Look, I know I’ve been beating the subject of bland and unimaginative titles to death lately, and you’ve got to be sick and tired of hearing me gripe about it, so rather than write any more long Dumb Ass Title diatribes, I’ve decided to vent my spleen with the occasional addendum to posts on other subjects, an addendum I’ll call:
TITLES FIT FOR A MORON
Today’s winner: The upcoming Eddie Murphy/Ben Stiller Oceans 11/12/13 knock-off, Tower Heist.