by J.D. Rhoades
During Allison’s discussion of “Epic Books” the other day, several commenters mentioned books they’d read over and over and might read again. That got me thinking because, at the time, I was re-reading a book I hadn’t read in years: Mark Twain’s THE INNOCENTS ABROAD. And, I confess, I was feeling a little guilty about it.
I know that’s absurd. After all, INNOCENTS ABROAD is a great book. It reminded me of why I love Twain. The passages where he’s in the Holy Land, recounting various absurd claims made on behalf of local landmarks, each narrative ending with the solemn affirmation that “of course,we know this to be true”, are Twain at his skeptical and ironic best. Twain knew that sometimes, the best way to satirize something foolish was to present it as it is, without embellishment or burlesque, just a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek. TV’s Jon Stewart is a master of the same technique.
But much as I enjoyed it, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of the steadily growing TBR pile beside the bed. All those books you haven’t read, one of that multitude of small voices in the back of my head nagged, and here you are going back and wasting time with something you’ve already read. And you know you’re going to be getting more books for Christmas, so you’ll get even further behind.
Like I said, absurd. Hey, it’s not always easy living inside my skull.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in the days of my youth, I used to read THE LORD OF THE RINGS at least once every couple of years. There are some Heinlein novels, like STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, GLORY ROAD, and STARSHIP TROOPERS, that I must have read five or six times each. I’ve read most of the Travis McGee books at least twice. Hammett’s RED HARVEST and THE MALTESE FALCON, three times.
Somewhere along the way, though, the leisure time shrank, while the number of books I wanted to read expanded. And re-reading a book I’d already read seemed like a waste of time that would be better spent exploring something new.
But, you know, I get over it. And when I do break down and pick up an old book, it sometimes shows me how much I’ve changed. The last time I picked up THE LORD OF THE RINGS, for instance, Tolkien’s formal, mythic prose, which had previously thrilled me, seemd a bit stilted. After a decade or so of coming to love spare, lean, noirish writing, one of my formerly favorite lines in the book, Eowyn’s defiance of the Nazgul who’s just told her “no living man” can kill him:
No living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.
…suddenly seemed almost comical. The movie version, with an excellent performance by Miranda Otto, boiled the line down to a snarled “I am no MAN!” followed by a vicious sword thrust to the face (or where the face ought to be). That, after all this time, had become much more satisfying. More hardboiled, so to speak.
INNOCENTS ABROAD also struck me a little differently. For the first time, I noticed that Twain’s more than a bit of a North European chauvinist. He finds the French and the Russians charming; the Italians, the Turks, and the Arabs, not so much. Now, maybe everything south and east of France really was as dirty, squalid, and diseased as Twain makes it out to be, and I have no problem believing that the Syria-Lebanon-Palestine trail was (and is) a parched and rocky hellhole. Maybe it’s just cultural oversenstivity making me wonder why, the darker the people get, the harder Twain is on them. Maybe the next time I re-read it, I’ll feel differently.
So tell me, dear ‘Rati: am I the only one who feels a little guilty getting sucked into a previously read book when there are so many unread ones on the TBR pile? Do you ever go back to a book you’ve read before and find it a very different experience from the other times? What book have you re-read the most times?