As I've said, a journalist wrote to me back in November asking if I'd reread any books that mattered to me and asking various questions about the importance of rereading to writers. I wrote an insanely long e-mail in reply which some readers have said they would like to see.
I have doubts about this, which strike me more forcefully now that I have read Sheila Heti's piece for the Globe and Mail. I find that the business connected with publishing a book makes it hard to do any serious writing, which means that I am increasingly cut off from the things I actually care about (one of which is, of course, reading); but in the meantime it is necessary to construct and deploy a social self as a matter of professionalism. This somehow ends up being a tapdancer with a Gene Kelly grin. (That's the way it feels, anyway.) I don't know if Heti feels that way too; when she shows up for public engagements she somehow comes across as genuine, so then I feel there is something wrong with me for covering up alienation with a lot of flippant remarks. Still, I have written 5000 words of a story in the last day, so perhaps the thing that used to be there is coming back.
Maybe if I had taken more time I would have written less manically and at a more sensible length; I had the feeling that if a journalist has a deadline to meet it's unhelpful to spend too much time self-editing. That might not be true. Anyway, this is what I said at the time, with some afterthoughts:
Dear Mr. Bowman
Barbara sent me your e-mail and I instantly began thinking of
books and writing them down, and when I got to the end I could not
BELIEVE I had left off X Y and Z and put them in, and then
remembered U, V and W-- and in the end had a list of appalling
length which must be far more than what you need. As well as so
many thoughts on the subject of rereading that these too had to be
excessive. So I am sending what I have in the hope that you can
discard whatever you can't use.
Rereading is important for writers because people in the
publishing industry constantly give advice couched in terms of
helping the reader. If you are not only a reader, or even a
rereader, but a rerererererererererereader, you know this is
complete bollocks. "The" reader does not exist. The 9-year-old
who read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe 50 times in a year
is genetically identical to the 54-year-old who has read Invisible
Cities more times than she can count (if certainly not 50). The
16-year-old who read Pride and Prejudice as historical romance (I
know Austen was forbidden, but really) is genetically
identical to the 54-year-old who reads it for its social analysis,
its savagery. (The 16-year-old would have had no interest in
Goffman or Bourdieu; the 54-year-old sees Austen as their
intellectual cousin.) As a rereader you can't be an amnesiac: you
KNOW there were books you loved and outgrew, books you hated first
time, admired 20 years later.
There are probably a hundred or so books I've read two or even
three times - wonder what to read, think Oh, I'll read Bleak House
again. The rereadings that stay in the mind are books reread
addictively - it's not just a question of countable number of
times, they are books I would always want to have around while
prey to the addiction, books in comparison with which other books
were pale, stale, uninteresting.
This is crucial for a writer: you discriminate between the real
thing and the also-rans, the would-be imitations. And it seems
rereading is also one way to self-knowledge. Sometimes you
outgrow an addiction; you observe the passions of an earlier self
(Nancy Drew. . .). But sometimes the pleasure remains unchanged
(Alice in Wonderland, say). Sometimes you keep going back to a
book because its argument is complex and you don't grasp it fully
the first or even second time (for me John Hicks' Market Theory of
Money and Zaller's Nature and Origin of Public Opinion would be
examples). And sometimes you keep going back because a book has
far-reaching implications, and as you see it leading to more and
more exciting possibilities you need to refer to the book again
and again (I have been going back to Edward Tufte's books on
information design for the last 15 years.)
Books sometimes feel as though reread when they're not, because
present at so many other readings: Pound gave me the impetus to
read follow work I loved in translation in the original language,
Proust gave me a way understanding worldliness, and they seem to
be with me whatever book happens to be in my hand.
Appallingly long list, more or less chronologically (the most
addictive rereading in childhood and adolescence):
By proxy, age 4, The Little Engine That Could, 400 times? Winnie
the Pooh, countless times. (Loved the Englishness of it.)
Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, first time age
8, probably 20 times since (I know "The White Knight's Tale,"
"Jabberwocky," "The Walrus and the Carpenter" by heart). Loved
the device of stepping into another world; the logical madness.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (C S Lewis) and Ajax Golden
Dog of the Australian Bush (Mary Elwyn Patchett): 50 times, in
alternation, at the age of 10. [Did not know of the other books
in the Narnia series for 2 years; never owned the others, so read
the series fewer times than I otherwise would have.] In different
ways, children leading their own lives apart from the alien world
The Man in the Brown Suit: Agatha Christie (1st at age 13, then
innumerable times) A heroine with a happy beginning (Mamma died when she was a
baby, Papa dies of pneumonia by the end of Ch. 1: "I had always longed for
adventure. My life had such a dreadful sameness, you see." A
witty villain, Sir Eustace Pedler, combination of Mr Fairlie and
Count Fosco in Collins' Woman in White (for about a year I wrote
my diary in the manner of Sir Eustace). Clever use of different
sorts of documents to carry forward narrative.
Mary Stewart's non-Arthurian "romantic thrillers," countless
times between ages 12 and 16. Loathed any kind of straight
romantic fiction, in these the appeal (slightly odd now) was a
thriller set in or in the aftermath of totalitarian or other
atrocity (the Holocaust, say, or time of the Greek colonels), with
a love interest.
P G Wodehouse, Leave it to Psmith!!!! The name Psmith is a comic
invention of genius, perfect for the character. The absurdly
contrived plot was one of PGW's best (and he was a master of such
things); in moments of gloom I think back to Psmith, masquerading
as a sensitive poet, inspecting the line 'across the pale parabola
of joy' and hoping he will not be asked to explain it. How many
times have I read it? 10? 15? 20? Surely not more than 20? But if
not only because I devoured as many other PGWs as I could get my
hand on, because otherwise even Psmith might grow stale.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, first at 14, then maybe once
a month for 2 years? Is that possible? Loved premise of walking
out the door for adventure; loved the runes and Elvish script and
the philological appendices, was maddened because one could not
learn the whole language. Led me indirectly to Greek; realized at
some point that this offered the charms of JRRT's appendices, and
a literature not written singlehandedly by J R R Tolkien.
The Three Musketeers and all sequels, maybe 5 times? Count of
Monte Cristo, 3, 4? [Began reading Musketeers in French the second
time around, so all this voracious reading of Dumas was probably
what made me a fluent reader of French, able to tackle Proust
independently...] Implausible, convoluted plots; excellent
villains; oaths: Parbleu! Mordieu!
Evelyn Waugh, Scoop. Read this first for a course on the British
novel at age 18, have probably read it 5 or 6 times since, and it
is always a joy. Source of the catchphrase "Up to a point, Lord
Copper." The wit, the savagery one loves in British writers.
Diminishing returns: Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim. Read this at the
same time as Scoop and thought it very funny. Went back to it 5
or 6 years later, thought it much less funny than remembered. 5
or 6 years later returned, idiotically, thinking I might have
misremembered the second time, found it virtually unreadable. KA
too invested in his character (unlike the cool distance of Waugh);
Much of Henry James 2 or 3 times in my twenties. Always a world
of sinister misunderstandings.
Moby-Dick: read this obstinately at 16 (having been told I was too
young), found it tedious beyond belief, reread at 33 and saw that
it was a work of a genius, with a glorious use of language.
Tristram Shandy: Insane contortions of narrative, language. First
time, could not believe anything so brilliant existed in the
world. With time one forgets, goes back, is again transfixed.
Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler: was dazzled when I
read this in 1980, to the point of buying the Italian edition at
Blackwell's; then bewildered, rereading in 1983, to find a
slightly nauseating archness, not to say downright cuteness. I
still admire it and have reread it a couple of times since, but
have to look past the cuteness. I was also dazzled by Invisible
Cities, which I also have in Italian, and this is better every
time. I open it and read a chapter and then another chapter
probably once a week. The inventiveness, the perversity of the
imaginary cities; the ferocious oulipian beauty of its structure.
Homer, Iliad and Odyssey, probably 3 times in Greek, keep wanting
to read them again and finding work gets in the way.
Stefan Zweig's Schachnovelle (Game of Kings) - Man taken prisoner
by Nazis, kept in solitary confinement to crack him and extract
information, he steals a chess book from the pocket of a coat,
plays chess obsessively with himself, goes mad, is released, is
lured into one last game . . . I loved the madness of the book,
the obsessiveness, the way the man, having played "one" last game,
is offered another and says Selbstverständlich ("Obviously" - but
it's so much better in German).
*Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker: Neglected equal of The Waste
Land. I love this for the extraordinary invented language, the
appropriation of technical terms, meaning lost, into explanatory
myths; with most novels you can "see how it's done," but here I
don't. Have read it three or four times, and admire it more
fervently every time.
read first at 19, many times since. I love this for its mannerism,
the embedding of a narrative within a narrative within a
narrative, marked throughout by the accusative and infinitive
construction with which Greek marks indirect discourse. Also for
the nastiness of Socrates to Alcibiades. Also for the way the
characters, setting out philosophical positions, are more real
than "psychologically realistic" characters.
Poetics, Nicomachean Ethics: we are what we repeatedly do -
relevance of this to moral action. [And, of course, to
rereading . . .]
*AC Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: Read first when
I was 24, many, many times since. Danto asks how physically
indistinguishable objects can be different works of art, or one a
work of art one not, and elucidates an immense range of aesthetic
phenomena. Central to the way I think about fiction.
*Erving Goffman: Asylums, Stigma, The Transfiguration of the
Commonplace. Things went badly wrong when my first novel was
published, EG has a way of looking at the human in the social
machine that was a comfort.
Barthes: S/Z, Essais critiques, Mythologies, Roland Barthes par
Roland Barthes: Barthes has a way of looking at himself looking at
the world that is never infatuated, never narcissistic; he is in
love with ideas. One sees why Bourdieu was maddened, but that is
the very thing that draws one back.
Bourdieu, Distinction; Homo Academicus; more observation of the
human in the machine.
*Renaud Camus, Tricks: Shandean account of a series of one-night
stands in pre-AIDS Paris, a tour de force.
*Edward Tufte: Envisioning Information, The Visual Presentation of
Quantitative Information - attention to the perspicuous
presentation of data is a form of care for truth, a moral quality
inseparable from intellectual rigor; have read these many, many
times in the last 15 years, they transform what I think can be
done with fiction.
[I have put stars by the books too few people know; can't imagine
life without them. If some obvious Great Books are missing it's
probably because they are generally known anyway.]
Again, I'm sorry this is so long.
with best wishes,
That is a lovely thought. (I am dismayed to see that in my
impetuosity I left off Waugh's Handful of Dust (!), Queneau's Zazie
dans le métro (tempted to say that if one reads only one book in
French, this should be the book), Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot, and
Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, but OK OK OK.)
Do you know this great quote?
"My dear Lady Kroessig, I have only read one book in my life, and
that is White Fang. It's so frightfully good I've never bothered to
read another." (Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love - p. 80 in
[have not been able to extract the quote in its context from Search
Inside This Book, but the character is based on Mitford's father,
who claimed to have read White Fang and never read another book for
fear of disappointment. Perhaps it might come in handy for your
[to Barbara Epler]
Remembered after the fact that I had forgotten to mention A
Handful of Dust, Zazie dans métro, Jacques le fataliste et son
maître, Flaubert's Parrot and The Autobiography of Alice B.
Toklas, which is shocking but probably a good thing.
Have just been reading Helen Vendler's review in the NYRB of a new
Anthology of Poetry. She talks of major 20th-century poets, gives
a list and adds in parentheses that some would include Pound. I
ask myself whether anyone who actually cares about poetry would