The Book Meme: Day 12

Day 12 - A book or series of books you've read more than five times

I am an unapologetic re-reader. Sure, I love discovering new and startling and exciting books, but I also believe--firmly--that revisiting a book can offer much that is new and startling and exciting. Instead of being propelled along by the narrative, you can take your time, less concerned with what happens next and able to appreciate the way the author is making it happen. Nuances of style and structure that escaped you the first time can reveal themselves. And since you are older and possessed of a different perspective when you pick up a book again, you may find it speaking to you in different ways than it did before. I unquestionably read a very different novel when I cracked open The Great Gatsby in my thirties--not at all the one I'd read in high school.

All that said, my re-reading is often based on another important thing a book can offer the next time around: comfort. It's odd to me that people will feel free to criticize you for reading a book more than once, but no one gets irritated if you want to listen to OK Computer or My Aim Is True or Innervisions again. I mean, I already have a pretty good idea what my friends are like, but having gotten to know them, I can still enjoy spending time with them again.

Naturally, any English teacher is called upon to re-read books constantly. I will confess that I didn't completely re-read the books I taught every year--but I always re-read them the first time I taught them, and I always re-read important sequences before teaching them. I figured I might well notice something I'd missed the last time, and often I did. But for this prompt, it seems unfair to count Gatsby, or Huck Finn, or Douglass's Narrative, or A Streetcar Named Desire, because I re-read them as part of my job.

I can easily point to books I've read five times or more. In fact, since I started keeping track of what I read back on March 1, 1996, I can see what I've re-read in black and white. Since that day I've read The Lord of the Rings three times, not counting when I read it to the kids in 2001. (In advance of the movie, I wanted them to have their own mental images of Middle-Earth, not ones that were dependent on what the film version showed.) Since I had already read it at least five times before that, it would certainly qualify. (Heck, I read it for a college class, too.) Despite its length, it is arguably the work I've re-read most often.

Like LOTR, the books I've re-read five times or more tend to be those I first read when I was pretty young: the Chonicles of Narnia, the Earthsea Cycle, Watership Down, The Wind in the Willows, and so on. If I consider books for children, there are even more titles to consider: both the Greek and Norse mythology books by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire have been in my hands probably dozens of times, as have books like The Snowy Day and Maurice Sendak's four-volume Nutshell Library. And once I had kids of my own, I can assure you that five is a laughably low figure for all the times I had to read Hop on Pop or Ride a Purple Pelican to the boys.

By contrast, I haven't voluntarily revisited that many of the books I discovered after college, even the ones I've loved, and I certainly haven't revisited them five times or more. Terry Pratchett's Small Gods, for example, is one I first read in 1999; I re-read it in 2001 and again in 2004. As much as I love it, I just haven't had the opportunities to revisit it that I had with Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin et al. 

I also tend to re-read nonfiction less than I re-read novels. Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter (which I first read in my teens) is probably the one I've re-read the most, but other than that, David Quammen's brilliant The Song of the Dodo, Stephen Jay Gould's astonishing Wonderful Life, and Tom Standage's breezy History of the World in Six Glasses may be the only nonfiction books I've chosen to read more than once. Okay, my own books, sure.

But there's one category I haven't mentioned yet: graphic novels. Because they're relatively quick reads, and because the artwork gives you a whole new set of nuances to re-examine, graphic novels (or comics collections) can be extremely rewarding options for re-reading. Unfortunately, I often tend to forget to log them on my readign list, so a lot of my re-readings have gone unrecorded. I am quite sure, however, that I've read Neil Gaiman's Sandman series at least four times, Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis & Darick Robertson at least three times, and Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon's Preacher at least twice.

But if I had to pick one book to point to as a constant in my adult life, it's got to be Watchmen. I've taken long dives into Alan Moore's oeuvre, particularly Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and I've reread his America's Best Comics titles (Promethea, Tom Strong, Tomorrow Stories, and Top 10) on a number of occasions. But with Watchmen, we're talking about a series I read when it came out in serial form, re-read multiple times in the original trade paperback collection (with the cover below), and after we had to replace our collection with the new one (with the more familiar smiley-face cover), re-read multiple times as well.

watchmen trade.jpgWatchmen is a particularly rich trove for re-reading, not just because of the incredible detail Dave Gibbons gives to the artwork, but because of Moore's script. He's a a writer who revels in the idea of correlations, so almost every bit of dialogue is intended to refer to something else; often it's a comment on what we're seeing in the panel (literally or ironically), but it can be a direct reference to an outside source (lines from Dylan or Shelley, historical references to Oppenheimer or Kitty Genovese) or an oblique play on superhero archetypes. There are appendices full of material to give context to the main narrative, and there's the extraordinary level of self-reference that makes every re-read something of a treasure hunt. (For example, if you try to find all the references to the Doomsday Clock, you'll quickly discover that nearly every circular shape shown in the book imitates the near-midnight hands in some way.) Finally, there is the remarkable structure of the work, one whose intricacies reveal themselves in new ways with every re-reading. Sure, you might notice from the first that Chapter 5, "Fearful Symmetry," is itself symmetrical, but you're a lot more likely to notice it after additional examination. And that might help you notice the symmetry of the series: a chapter of plot, a chapter of background, a chapter of background, all the way through Chapter 6. At that point it reverse to run background-plot, background-plot all the way to the end.

It's a remarkable work of imagination and craft. I thought so the first time I read it, and every time since.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 17, 2018 9:31 AM.

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