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Why I Reread

I recently added to a thread on Facebook about Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, during which I mentioned that I’ve read it at least four times. It got me thinking about how many other books I’ve read more than once, and what the list might say about me. Actually, I reread a lot, so for the purposes of keeping the list shorter, I’m trying to recall books I’ve read at least three times:

  • Specific plays by Shakespeare: Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth (10+)
  • Holy Sonnets, Elegies, Satires, John Donne (10+)
  • Ulysses, James Joyce (6)
  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, by, er, Billy Wobbledagger (5+)
  • Songs of Innocence and Experience, William Blake (5+)
  • The Iliad, Alexander Pope’s translation (4)
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (4)
  • Plays and Poems, Bertolt Brecht (4)
  • The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene (4)
  • The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (4)
  • Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert (4)
  • Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (4)
  • Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow (3)
  • The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky (3)
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (3)
  • Smoke, Ivan Turgenev (3)

The first thing I notice about this list is that it’s easier to read poetry and plays multiple times than novels. Still, I have been drawn back to Shakespeare a lot, and Pope’s version of the Iliad, for the beauty of the language, the storytelling, and in Shakespeare’s case because it has everything. Novels predominate as a genre, and each example given led me to read almost everything else by that author. The exception is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which I fell in love with as a teenager, but which for some reason remained the only thing I read by Hemingway until a few years ago. A brilliant high school English teacher was responsible for my falling in love with Donne, Shakespeare, Twain, Dickens, and Greene. University brought me Dostoevsky, Bellow, Flaubert, and Brecht. I found my way to Joyce as a teenager because it was my first introduction to really complex writing, and also for the simple reason that it fed my personal rebellion against Catholicism. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on “Ulysses,” and turned to the Circe/Night-town chapter when making my first suite of etchings in the 90s. But I probably won’t read it again—too much of the linguistic experimentation in the later chapters, while being absolutely justified artistically, just don’t satisfy me as a reader any more. Turgenev is a recent infatuation, and is probably the candidate who will move up the rankings of rereadings in the future.

Why do I reread so often? Partly it’s the warmth of familiarity, a memory of the strong emotional response of the first reading, a desire to be pulled into the story and for it to completely enfold me and engage me again. Partly it’s because these works are touchstones: I read much more contemporary fiction that I ever did, thanks to my writer-wife’s influence, but every now and then I drift back to My List as an unconscious way of maintaining the connection between present art and past. Maybe this is the same as trying to answer the question: Why do I listen to pieces of music more than once? Because they give me the old pleasure, and because for certain pieces (of music, of literature) it’s never exactly the same on the third, fourth, or even tenth reading.

Maybe the best answer was given by Vladimir Nabokov: “One cannot read a book. One can only reread it.”


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