Don’t have literary one-night stands. Go back again and again; the really good ones get better and better.
(Beowulf on the Beach by Jack Murnighan, 2009, p. 360)
I am currently in the middle of How to Read a Book (Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren, 1972), and it is proving to offer plenty to contemplate. Now, I haven’t yet reached the specific discussion regarding novels and short stories, which may be treated with in a slightly different manner than the expository (works conveying knowledge, i.e., non-fiction) material Adler & Van Doren deal with for the majority of the book, but in this early part, I was particularly struck by the following statement:
In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away. (36)
You will have a much better chance of understanding it on a second reading, but that requires you to have read the book through at least once. (37)
Thus implying that any difficult work will be automatically reread.
Some years back I read the first portion of The Well Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (Susan Wise Bauer, 2003). Bauer advocated for three readings of a book. (Relying only on a faulty memory, I believe she cited Adler & Van Doren as one of her references.)
Before I go further, I should clarify that Adler & Van Doren—and presumably Bauer as well—are discussing books (and essays, stories, articles, etc.) that are being read for understanding rather than for knowledge (facts) or entertainment. They acknowledge that such reading material exists and has its purpose and value, but does not require the depth of reading they are seeking to encourage.
We readers are a voracious bunch. Not only do we tend to devour every book in sight, we compile lists and more lists. Sometimes even lists of lists. (Guilty.) If we don’t create them ourselves, we clip them from other sources—1001 Books to Read Before You Die, MLA’a Top 100 Books of the 20th Century, Nobel Prize Winners, Lifetime Reading Plans—they go on and on. In our hearts, we know that we will never actually get to every book we ever wish to read.
And now we are being told that not only should we read these books, if we wish to truly understand them, truly ingest them, we should read them more than once?
I am a rereader. I always have been. I can think of plenty of “great books” which I’ve read that I would like to read again. But the cold hard truth is that, unless I suddenly become independently wealthy (ha!) and never need to work again, I will never have time to read every single book on my list once much less multiple times. And yet…
…[Gravity’s Rainbow is] a near-impenetrable mangrove of interconnected elements, sprawling and expanding, almost metastasizing, to the point where unless you’re keeping notes on a graph-paper wall board, you’re almost sure to lose your bearings.
The alternative is one I stumbled upon by accident while bedridden on vacation with a nasty cold and Gravity’s Rainbow as my only book: I did nothing but read the bugger for four straight days; then the second I finished, I turned from the last page to the first (as I recommend you do with Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom too) and read the whole thing again.
(Beowulf on the Beach, p.342)
I finished Divine Comedy last summer after over three months of reading and my first thought was “I have to read these again.” Thinking about it recently, I should have read it twice through on my original read—once with and once without reading the endnotes. It was difficult, it was deep, it was allegorical, it referenced so many things and people I didn’t know about: to even begin to get the whole picture, it cries out to be read more than once. On the other hand, I contrast this with what might be considered “easier” classics, Jane Eyre, for instance. When I read Jane Eyre many years ago, I had no difficulty following the story. I was completely engaged and disappointed that it had to come to an end. At first glance it would seem that I could place Jane Eyre on a different list than Divine Comedy—books that don’t need reread and those that do—but further reflection suggests that indeed Jane Eyre also merits reread. What is it about, after all? Is it a simple romance story, of a governess meeting her true love? Or should it be read as an early feminist work, about a woman independently seeking to make her way in world, on her own terms? Maybe neither of these is quite right; maybe it is a gothic horror in the tradition of Ann Radcliff and Horace Walpole. Of course, given that each reader approaches a work with their own perspectives and background, and that these change over the course of one’s life, perhaps the ability to view a novel from many different perspectives is not in and of itself enough to demand rereading.
I am hoping that Adler & Van Doren clarify this issue as I continue through the book. Are they primarily advocating rereads for works which are too difficult on the first pass, or for anything considered “great?” (Which of course could get into the messy definition of what “great” is.)
What do you think? Do you see value in reading great works of literature—those from which you seek understanding—more than once? Or do you feel the pressure from all the titles you still want to read–that it is more important to read many than few?
Is rereading necessary?