I've recently been rereading some novels especially meaningful to me, some for a second time, some for a third, trying to figure out why they resonate. For a writer, it's important work. But it's also a pleasure and deeply rewarding, and probably falls somewhere between, say, a movie buff re-watching a favorite film and a horologist opening a beloved clock to study its mechanical innards. I should also say, I mostly reread the short ones.
I've read Don DeLillo's Underworld more than once because the book looms large for me, but I revisit it mostly in piecemeal, a section here and there. On the other hand, I've read Point Omega, his latest, many times, usually in a single sitting. Takes about two hours. Of course, it helps that it's only 115 pages, and I swear a book moves faster when you know what's coming. So why on earth reread?
There's something uncannily "real" about better knowing a character's motivations and actions as they live in the world of a novel. We are enlisted and become something of a surrogate for character. A story comes alive in unexpected ways, and can ultimately be even more satisfying. Sentences take on surprising new meanings. Words flash like road signs in the dark. Slow Down. Crossroad. Danger Ahead. Plus you come to understand how a book works, which is invaluable for a writer. But not all of us have two hours to spare, nor do all of us need to know how a novel works, not to mention there's too many books to read in the first place -- for the first time.
I say go shorter. As in: short stories. Read more short stories. Then read your favorites again. And again. They only get better.
Denis Johnson's much-loved "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" (from his equally loved collection Jesus' Son) only improves with rereading. What might seem haphazard, casual, even dreamily constructed to some at first glance reveals itself to be as rich as any story I've read. It's so easy to read past lines like "What was the point, even, of rolling up my sleeping bag when I was too wet to be let into anybody's car? I draped it around me like a cape." And yet that image -- on the very first page -- of an unnamed narrator drunkenly, and so desperately high, overflowing with metaphysical longing, teetering roadside like a failed and sopping superhero, his wet cape limp, fully comes to life only after reading the story's final page. And speaking of pages, there are ten. Ten short pages. I've read the story at least as many times as I've taught it over the years, and I always find something new and surprising.
Or think of the great Grace Paley's "Living," barely two pages (!), which results in about as close to a resurrection as I can figure. Because I swear "Faith," the narrator, and her best friend "Ellen," even Paley herself -- all long gone -- are breathing right beside me when I read it. There she is, again, in my living room, lamenting how "you have to be cockeyed to love, and blind in order to look out your window at your ice-cold street," and that living means dying, and dying means living, but it's worth it. Sometimes I need reminding. So I read, and I reread, to remember all I knew, or get what I missed the first time around. It's a second chance.
This essay first appeared in the Books Inc. Newsletter.