I Frequently Re-Read Books That Have Impressed Me
This year I have re-read ten books since the start of 2019, such as Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. It has been eleven years since I have read any Conrad, back when I had finally finished Under Western Eyes, which I had started back in college. The main reason I ever re-read a book is to see whether I have somehow changed in the intervening years. Very occasionally, I forget that I have read a particular work in the past and go through it a second time, not realizing my mistake until I check my reading log. Below is a list of 2019 re-reads:
- Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim
- Laurence Sterne: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
- Sean O’Casey: Juno and the Paycock
- Virginia Woolf: Monday or Tuesday, Eight Stories. I re-read this one by accident.
- John Lloyd Stephens: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán. I will probably re-read a number of other books about Mexico in the next few months, most of which I have not touched for over 30 years.
- William Shakespeare: Hamlet. Multiple re-reads.
- G. K. Chesterton: Robert Louis Stevenson and The Poet and the Lunatics. I frequently re-read Chesterton for sheer enjoyment.
- J. E. Neale: Queen Elizabeth I
A Joy to Read Any Number of Times
As my Yucatán vacation draws close, I will probably re-read Fanny Calderón de la Barca’s Life in Mexico; Charles Macomb Flandrau’s Viva Mexico!; and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and a few other books.
The Book Is the Same, Only the Reader Has Changed
The thing about re-reading books you first encountered decades ago is to feel the winds of change in your life. When I first read J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, I was a high school student looking forward to leaving Cleveland to go to college. The book was a revelation to me, and re-reading it at this late stage in my life shows me sitting on the porch of our house at 3989 East 176th Street, turning the pages and marveling at a book written for kids like me. It’s a good feeling: I accept that 16-year-old kid. He was all right.
Following is a quote that pretty much describes my feeling at re-reading The Catcher in the Rye:
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time. Or that kid that was your partner in line last time had got scarlet fever and you’d have a new partner. Or you’d have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way – I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.
Well, unlike Holden, I am in fact much older; but that’s okay. Better, in fact, than the alternative.
Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)
As Juan Vidal wrote for National Public Radio:
The best books are the ones that open further as time passes. But remember, it’s not because they changed. Every letter and punctuation mark is exactly where it always has been, and where it will remain forever. It’s you who are different; it’s you who’s been affected by the depth of your experience. And it’s you that has to grow and read and reread in order to better understand your friends.
I have just finished re-reading Aldous Huxley’s first novel, Crome Yellow, written in 1921 at the beginning of his career. In 1975, I was abashed by the romantic failures of Dennis Stone, the book’s narrator, with whom I identified because of my own experiences at that time. Now I see that Huxley not only was living through his own callow youth, but very neatly encapsulated for all time that obsessiveness with our own tactical failures can result in even more serious strategic failures in this life. Dennis fails with Anne Winbush, but his consciousness of failure prevents him from seeing Mary Bracegirdle, who is interested in him.
There are some books I re-read on a regular basis. Most notably: Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I am now in my third reading of the seven-volume novel, and ready to start re-reading the third volume, The Guermantes Way. Then there are works like The Iliad and The Odyssey, Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, and any number of great books that I want to re-investigate because I have changed. To re-read is to measure that change.
When I was in my thirties, I loved Aldous Huxley and read many of his works. Now I think I’m about to check out his novels, stories, and essays again. The years have sped on, and we are all a work in progress.