Monday, November 29, 2004

Books worth rereading

Hugh Hewitt asks whether there are any modern novels worth reading more than once. The emphasis there, I suppose, is on the word "modern." Certainly the reason classics become "classics" is because they are worth rereading; they say something about the human condition, or they contain timeless truths that are always worth reflecting upon.

I'm often surprised when people remark to me that they can't understand why I would read a novel more than once. I gather that these are people who never see a movie more than once. Maybe they never go to the same restaurant more than once either. When we reread books, we discover new insights or truths that we may have missed on the first reading. Perhaps the first time you read a book you were at a very different stage in life, and what spoke to you when you were 20, for example, isn't the thing that speaks to you at 40.

C.S. Lewis once wrote: "No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally, and often far more, worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond."

I might alter that a bit to say "No book is really worth reading which is not also worth rereading."

I wish I could read a 400-page novel in the same time it takes me to sit through a film version of the same. Probably because of time constraints and a desire not to read something that I'll later regret, in the last few years I've found myself rereading more of my favorite books instead of discovering new ones.

Here are a few novels I've recently reread:

Refiner's Fire, Winter's Tale, and Memoir from Antproof Case, all by Mark Helprin. I still need to read A Soldier of the Great War a second time. (I've blogged about Helprin a number of times, so I won't repeat my praise for his writing. But if magical realism, absurdist humor, and poignant imagery is your cup o' java, give him a try.)

The Violent Bear it Away and Wise Blood, both by Flannery O'Connor. I've also read many of her short stories more than once. More people should read O'Connor.

I've lost count of the number of times I've reread C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. I know I've read his Space Trilogy at least twice. I've also reread The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters. (I need to reread Till We Have Faces, because I don't think I really understood it.)

I've probably read Tolkien's The Hobbit three or four times. I'm currently on my third reading of The Lord of the Rings, too.

I reread Ray Bradbury's short stories quite often, and I've also reread his novels Fahrenheit 451, and The Martian Chronicles (which is really a collection of stories anyway). Fahrenheit 451 seems more prescient all the time--not so much in the book-burning, but in its depiction of the future of television.

If we include non-fiction, then I'll add Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard, Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, and A Walk Across America, by Peter Jenkins.

I know I'm forgetting a lot. So many of our books are packed away in boxes right now because we had to clear off the bottom two shelves of all our bookshelves due to a toddler with an appetite for the written word. (And when I say "appetite," I mean that literally.)

Here are a few novels I intend to return to soon.

Silence, by Shusaku Endo. It's the story of a Jesuit priest in feudal Japan who faces brutal opposition to his attempts to spread the gospel. I found it to be profoundly disturbing, but in a good way.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. A novel about the tragedy that befalls a Jesuit mission to a newly discovered planet. The sequel, Children of God, isn't as good, but it's a necessary follow-up.

The River Why, by David James Duncan. Fly-fishing and the search for God. I have often reread favorite passages from this book, because some of it is really funny, and other parts are quite moving. But I haven't reread the book as a whole yet.

The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene. A fallen priest vacilates between his desire to escape persecution in Mexico, and his calling to remain to serve the people. It's still the only Graham Greene I've read.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. It's probably a good thing this was the first novel by Irving I read, because after this I tried The World According to Garp and loathed it. I've been warned that most of his other novels are similarly vulgar. But Owen Meany affirms the notion that there is a higher purpose in seemingly random--and even tragic--situations.

I'm also planning to reread a lot of the classics that I haven't read since high school or college. I've found that some books I really disliked in high school I ended up enjoying quite a bit as an adult. The Red Badge of Courage is one in particular that I got really bored with in 9th grade, but was absolutely fascinated with when I read it at age 30. Similarly, I think The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is wasted on children. The satire in it may best be appreciated by grown-ups.


At 9:28 PM, Blogger sistersophist said...

I would like to reread some of the classics as well. I recently went back to Carson McCullers and A MEMBER OF THE WEDDING. That's always a good sad one. I read Shirley Jackson's WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED AT THE CASTLE, and "The Lottery" and that inspired me to read some of her other short stories and non-fiction. Try them sometime. I expected her writing to be spooky and strange, but her stories about her country life and her children are LOL funny and very charming.

At 10:33 PM, Blogger Drew said...

"The Lottery" just seemed so nihilistic. I've never felt the desire to read anything else by her.

I'm still looking for a good translation of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." I read it in high school and loved it, I tried to read it again recently and just couldn't get into it. I realized that I'd read a different translation the first time.

At 10:24 PM, Blogger sistersophist said...

After looking up nihilistic (I admit I had to do that) I can agree with you, but only for that story. I know there are millions of books in the world and very little time, but if you ever stumble across Shirley Jackson's observations about everyday life, you'd be amazed. The writer of that creepy tale was also the best brownie baker in her little town. She couldn't have been all that bad if she could bake a mean brownie.


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