Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Rereading

Lately I’ve been rereading Yeats, and once again thinking that there is no reading like rereading. I ought to do even more rereading, particularly of current books, because it is in rereading that a story or poem reveals itself—and tells us the extent of its merit. Most reviewers know only the first cursory passage through a work when they pen a review; a reader can know more. Though life is short and art long, we ought to reread often, because it is there that we “dive,” as Melville would say.

I’m finding that Yeats stands up. He manages to speak to me differently at every age. Right now I am touched by some of the youthful poems—they speak so eloquently of dreamy youth and aspiration—but it is the power of the old man Yeats that shakes me, and his determination to live to the end, to make first-rate art until the end of making. His creation of an alternate universe for himself seems far more sensible as a poet’s tool than it did when I was younger.

While I tend to read a lot of older writers again and again and again—a thing that began with my first-grade obsession with Lewis Carroll—there are few contemporaries that I’ve treated that way. If I try to pick out what books and stories and poems by living authors that I’ve read for a second or third time in the course of 2006, I can’t recall very many: poems in Catching Light by Kathryn Stripling Byer and Philokalia by Scott Cairns; Christopher Logue’s War Music; various essays in Seamus Heaney’s Finders Keepers; the story, “Creation,” by Jeffrey Ford; the delicious fairy tale, Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones, as well as a Chrestomanci story or two; a translation of Leena Krohn’s Tainaron: Mail from Another City; various poems and stories by writers who are penpals. No doubt there are others that don’t immediately jump to mind, but what I remember is more first-time reads. Reading to children makes me reread living authors, I see, and it seems that I may reread poetry by them more often than prose.

Perhaps next year I should reread more books by living authors. And it would be interesting to collect a list of what other people find satisfying as rereads by contemporaries . . .

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The photograph is courtesy of www.sxc.hu and Nils Thingvall of Orlando, Florida. “Readers Under Diamonds” is a picture of "readers in the Seattle Public Library under an expanse of diamond-shaped windows."

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16 comments:

  1. Rereading is so surprising. When C was taking AP World Lit, I (re)read One Hundred Years of Solitude, Heart of Darkness and Moby Dick with her. It was a terrific thing to do together. I got such a different take on Heart of Darkness this go round. You keep summoning me back to Yeats. It doesn't take much.

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  2. Interesting. When I was teaching English, I re-read many of the books I taught year after year. Charles Dickens' "The Christmas Carol", "Tale of Two Cities." Lois Lowry, "Gathering Blue", and "The Giver." J.R.R. Tolkein's "The Hobbit." Also "Beowulf: A new Telling" "I Heard the Owl Call My Name."The Wizard of Earthsea." "A Christmas Box.", and too many short stories to even mention.

    So far this year I have not re-read anything, although the drive to re-visit well loved novels hit the other day as I was looking through a bookstore, and my own bookshelves. I want to re-read "Wolf Pit", because I did like it so, and also Ron Rash's "Saint's at the River" because it is my favorite Ron Rash book, I have read three of his now. And I want to re-read Brian Railsbacks book as well. And it is time to re-read "A Christmas Carol", and "The Christmas Box." because it is Christmas season.

    Your book of poems "Claire" is on my Amazon wish list, as is the new Isabelle Allenede novel so I have lots to read when I am not working on other things.

    When The Children were small we would read and re-read Laura Ingles Wilder books to them. All things A.A. Milne. C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia." The Ramona series. "The Hobbit, and the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy." We started this tradition of reading these things to them when they were 5,3, and bouncing on the lap, so I guess it is no wonder that two of three have literary leanings, and are far wider read than I am. The youngest once had a young man break up with her because to quote him. "You use too many big words." She told him, "Well, you wouldn't fit in with my family then, because my sister, brother, and parents are far more verbose than I am." (She is the "non-writer.")

    I guess I have taken up enough of your space. It just touched a nerve because I was thinking of all the lovely old friendly books that I haven't read in a bit.

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  3. When you are old and grey is one of my all times favs.

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  4. Ms. b. q.,

    There is plenty of space available around here. Feel free to take several acres for whatever purpose you like.

    Ms. Laura,

    I am fond of rereading Gormenghast. I find the kitchens interesting. The Victorians also have some good kitchens, with pots banging about in satisfying manner.

    Ms. Susanna,

    That is a lovely poem. Though I am young, I know what it is to be “nodding by the fire!”

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  5. Ah, rereads:

    The Works of G. K. Chesterson; Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Holy the Firm, and Teaching a Stone to Talk; Willa Cather’s My Antonia; Barbara Kingsolver’s Little Wonder; Emily Dickinson; and Emerson and Thoreau essays. And, yes, I've read and reread Little Jordan and Ingledove.

    I've not yet revisited Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, but it's certainly worthy of another read.

    It’s comforting to curl up with an old friend (book, that is), uncovering new gems and dwelling amidst beautiful language. Currently, a parent of one of my students gifts me with her favorite rereads, so I feel obliged to delve into her book world, too. And of course, I'll want to read some of your favorites, Marly. “So many books, so little time!”

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  6. Oh,yes, great photo, readers in Seattle library.

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  7. What a jolly bunch of readers so far...

    Perhaps I'll try to make a list of rereading obsessions.

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  8. It is so ****ing hard to find a Christmas hat with sparklers these days!

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  9. Are you still looking for that red velvet hat with sparklers?

    Sweateth not, fair Alabamian maid.

    Just keep a lookout for a gang of Elder Women, ostentatious members of the Red Hat Club. If you are a nefarious sort, a larcenous snitch might be in order. P. G. Wodehouse has some good tips on hat thievery. It seems to lead one into grand adventures. However, being a law-abiding (though frolicsome Pot Boy), I feel compelled to say that I do not suggest this root.

    Ask the Elder Birds where they obtained their sumptuous red hats. Go to said highly-colored emporium. Purchase red velvet hat. Poke holes. Add sparklers. Voilà!

    Alternative: Learn to balance heavy books on your head. Bake a red velvet cake. Place on tray. Poke sparklers into the cake and place the tray on your head. Voilà!

    Now I go back to rereading Gormenghast. M. is still reading Tours of the Black Clock and Yeats and several other things. An unusual number of abandoned novels are lying about the hall--nothing seems to please her this week.

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  10. That should have been route, of course. I was carried away by the over-powering presence of a bushel of rutabagas in the kitchen.

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  11. Keats and contemporary...have you read Anne Carson's The Beauty of the Husband?

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  12. You know, I haven't read that one. But perhaps I should, since it dances around beauty, truth, Keats, & marriage: all things that interest me.

    I take it that you find the book engaging...

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  13. About a month ago, I re-read "Knee Deep in Thunder" by Sheila Moon, a best-beloved books when I was about 13 years old.

    Unlike "The Once and Future King," it didn't hold up for me, and I'm still thinking through why. But at that time in my life, it was the most wonderful, nuturing escape book.

    And please tell Pot Boy I almost fell out of my chair laughing at:
    "I was carried away by the over-powering presence of a bushel of rutabagas in the kitchen."

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  14. Thanks, Ms. Big-wit!

    Rutabagas are among the Humorous Vegetables, so I can't take much credit for invoking them.

    Being bound to the kitchens, I can't say I was much of a reader as a boy. So I have never encountered the once-but-not-in-future-delightful Ms. Moon. In my current employment, however, the itch to read is catching.

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  15. Great piece. Most of my re-reads consist of short stories by the likes of Frank O’Connor, Chekhov, Faulkner, John McGahern, Mary Lavin, Maeve Brennan, Cheever and Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. I’m sure there’s more but that’s all I can think of off hand. I re-read very few novels other than those of Faulkner and Joyce’s Ulysses. I can’t re-read enough of the poetry of Yeats, Heaney, Kavanagh, Whitman and Hart Crane. I always have a volume of one or the other on hand.

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  16. That's an interesting list, Mr./Ms. Anon, with several people whose work I haven't read. I'll have to stick them on my To Try list.

    Do you know Heaney's collection of essays, Finders Keepers? There's some great stuff on Yeats in there, so you could read two of your favorites at once!

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.