Monday, February 28, 2011
Why Do We Re-read?
But which ones? How do I choose? I decided my criteria should be one, simple question: “Will I read this book again?” If the answer is, “No.” out it goes.
This led me to a more philosophical question. What makes a book re-readable? Why do I read some books over and over, and never open others again, once I’ve closed their cover? I’m not talking about bad books here. Or boring books. I’m talking about tried and true classics. What is the magical quality that drives me back to Austen, Sayers, Tey, Chandler, Poe, Stevenson, Cather, Salinger and Fitzgerald? But never to Hardy, Eliot, Tolstoy, Scott, Dostoevski, and various contemporary authors who will remain nameless? Is it a simple matter of taste?
I have pondered this question often because I would really like people to reread my books. My greatest desire is to have people treat my books like old friends and revisit them — with pleasure. But how do I write such books?
Does anyone out there know the secret of Austen, Chandler or Sayers? Are their characters more human? Do you like to hang out with them more? That can’t be it. I wouldn’t want to hang out with Daisy and Tom, or most of Philip Marlow’s cronies. Is it the satisfaction that justice is done? Not really. Certainly not in The Great Gatsby or “The Black Cat.” Is it the writing itself — the flow, the imagery, the wit — or a combination of these? I don’t think so. I’ve read plenty of beautifully written books — only once.
The first book I reread was Little Women, the second — Pride and Prejudice, and the third — Gaudy Night. After that I lost count. It didn’t matter that I knew Jo wouldn’t marry Laurie, or that Elizabeth would marry Darcy, or who wrote the obscene notes on Oxford’s hallowed walls. I relished these stories just as much, maybe even more, when I knew the outcome.
If any of you know the answer, please let me know.
— Robin Hathaway