Thursday, 9 August 2012

Re-readers and once-readers


C.S Lewis often emphasized that it was re-reading that made a classic; and a book - no matter how good - which only invited a single reading, was comparatively deficient.

Also that the relatively small group of re-readers formed the most important literary audience. Lewis himself did not feel he had read a book until he had read it more than once, and would often reserve judgement.


JRR Tolkien, on the other hand, claimed seldom to re-read - and that he always enjoyed the first reading the most, when the 'bloom' was on the (and therefore that a book could be diminished by being read too young - as when Lord of the Rings was first-read by ten year olds).


I myself am a re-reader, and tend to feel that if a book is not worth reading more than once it is not worth reading once; yet I recognize Tolkien's point.

I also know people who have read books once and been transformed by them, and never gone back to re-read.

Indeed I know several (extremely well-read) people who essentially never re-read novels - and of course thereby end up with a much wider experience of literature.

(The greatness of Lord of the Rings is that it is often the only book which some voracious once-only readers will go back and re-read - and the same may apply to the Harry Potter series.)


A re-reader like myself might go on holiday with half a dozen 'old favourites' while a once-reader will take a set of newly purchased (or borrowed) books, looking-forward to the freshness of repeating that first (and only) experience of reading.



mr tall said...

I'm of much the same mind when it comes to re-reading fiction. Most I'm happy to let go, but I find certain books are worth returning to.

Tolkien is of course one, because reading the LotR is almost like a co-journeying with the principals.

I also enjoy re-reading Agatha Christie novels. Some, because they have the strange power of gripping the mind fiercely during the reading, but then fading away out of memory with almost startling speed. I forget whodunit, and can return in a few years to enjoy that 'first bloom' almost fresh again. Others, though, have unforgettable solutions, but I still enjoy re-reading because I can manage to forget how Christie got from opening line to famous ending, and because I enjoy the settings and pacing so much.

JP said...

I agree with CS Lewis. Re-readability is the acid test of whether or not a book is worthwhile. This is also the reason I generally don't buy a lot of fiction (I get it from the library). Most novels aren't worth re-reading and thus aren't worth owning.

Dale James Nelson said...

I think that Lewis somewhere says that, in the first reading of a story, the "narrative lust" is gratified. Reading War and Peace, we do want to find out how Pierre and Natasha are going to get together. Reading Great Expectations, we want to see how Dickens resolves Pip's longing for Estella. Reading Huckleberry Finn, we want to find out what's going to happen to the slave Jim. And so on.

It's when we have enjoyed this "what happens next" element -- which no doubt is intended by the author to appeal to us -- that we can more fully enjoy other aspects of literature. Lewis recognizes, however, that, for some readers, narrative excitement is almost the -only- element that matters. I believe he saw Alexandre Dumas as an author who provided that -- and little more than that.

He also said that, where a book is reread and loved, those who have assumed that there isn't much to it should question themselves. If it is yielding some pleasure to good readers, beyond that of narrative excitement, then if may deserve more respect than they were inclined to give it.