It doesn’t matter what book it is or how much I enjoyed it or that it’s likely to endure as a classic. I’ve read all of Flannery O’Connor, all of Bernard Malamud, certain novels of Robert Stone, all of Chandler and Hammett, and a slew more. Yet, I have never been tempted to reread a one. Sure, I used to tell myself: I should read that fine book again. But I don’t. I’ve stopped kidding myself that I should/ would. Ain’t happening. Probably a Moral Failing.
What prompted this soul-searching was the question Robin Hathaway asked in her blog on Monday: how do you decide which books to reread? No problem, Robin. But I do make one concession. I’ll reread the first chapter sometimes: usually to remind myself how a skilled author has set up his story (and often the theme) and why I kept reading past Chapter One (indeed, past the first few pages); also, to re-experience the voice. Novels in which I’ve recently "re-read" that much: The Pawnbroker, the wonderfully grim 1961 work by Edward Lewis Wallant. He died in 1962 at the age of 36, having published The Pawnbroker and his first, The Human Season. Two novels were published after his death, The Tenants of Moonbloom and The Children at the Gate. I have all his novels in ancient paperbacks (unread except for The Pawnbroker) but I’m not letting go of any. I’ve also read in full two recent novels of James Patterson out of curiosity to see how he does it, then reread the first chapter of The Postcard Killers. That didn’t tell me much except that all Patterson’s chapters are three pages long.
Like so many collectors of treasured books, I have a space problem: too many friends, too few shelves. So, like Robin, I’ve in the past asked the ultimate question: Will I read this book before I die? This is a good question to ask yourself before you close your eyes and start tossing books in a big box-to-go. What especially prompts asking myself the question (or any question) now? Well, I have prided myself on having all books displayed on my shelves, spines and titles out, in single rows: no second row of unknowable titles hidden behind. I am losing ground in that regard, although no book lives in my house in a box.
The truth is I needn’t ask myself any phony questions at all. I comfort myself in the belief that, when push comes to shove, I can go "scorched earth" on the bookshelves. I will not pretend to be rereading any of them (particularly those I haven’t read in the first place), so out they go. I confess I am a slow reader. Yet, as Bibliomaniacs, we know in our heart of hearts that there are far more compelling reasons to own a book than just to read it. But I am steadfast in this: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” And, yet... Not my First Edition of Robert Stone’s A Flag For Sunrise nor Lucius Shepard’s The Jaguar Hunter... surely not John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGees in Gold Medal paperback, Stanley Ellin’s The Eighth Circle from Dell, Nelson Algren’s A Walk On the Wild Side from Fawcett. Pocketbooks take up no space at all, right?