Twice is nice
A couple of weeks ago I sat in my favorite chair, picked up a book, and relaxed into a blend of contentment and anticipation. I had a book in hand, The Queen’s Gambit, a novel by Walter Tevis, and I knew I was going to enjoy it.
That’s not always the case. I spend far less time reading these days than I did in the past. I don’t pick up that many books, and finish a slim percentage of the ones I start. Some I abandon with extreme prejudice, as it were; something in the writing or story line aggravates me, and that’s the end of that. But other books simply slip away; I put them down and find myself disinclined to pick them up again.
Part of this is physical. My eyes find reading a little more effortful every couple of years. But the greater portion, I expect, is the natural effect of a lifetime of reading and writing.
So how could I know I’d enjoy The Queen’s Gambit?
Simple. I’d read it before.
Several times, actually. I read it for the first time within a year or two of its 1983 publication. While the book is in no sense a crime novel, it was Carol Brener of Murder Ink who steered me to it. Carol kept a small section of non-mysteries she felt would appeal to mystery readers, and she had perfect pitch in this area. (I recall that W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe was on that same shelf.)
Tevis tells the story of a girl, an institutionalized orphan, who watches the building’s janitor moving pieces on a chessboard and emerges as a chess prodigy. You don’t have to know anything about chess to find the book wholly engrossing and deeply moving.
It seems to me that I twice reread The Queen’s Gambit during the past 30 years. When I sat down with it last month, I’m sure it had been at least 10 years since my last go at it, and it may well have been more like 15. I picked the book up knowing what I’d encounter within its pages, remembered Beth Harmon, recalled her story.
So it was familiar, and yet the details had faded with time, and there were many incidents that I did not recall until I came upon them. And I’m sure I noticed subtleties that had slipped past me on earlier readings. From the first page to the last, Beth’s story was everything I could want a novel to be.
There are, it seems to me, certain satisfactions that are specific to rereading. One comfort, obviously, is that one knows what one is getting. Readers seek out authors they’ve enjoyed in the past because they can trust that they’re in safe hands; similarly, series fiction owes much of its popularity to the reader’s confidence born of experience.
Another satisfaction derives, paradoxically, from the reduction of suspense. It is an appreciation of suspense, a delight in the urgent need to know what happens next, that spurs much of our reading, but at the same time that headlong rush can hurry us like blindered horses past all the scenery along the way. One finds oneself skimming, or at the least racing through scenes too swiftly to savor them.
When I reread, I have time to notice the roadside flowers, and even take in their bouquet. Lines of dialogue that served merely to advance the plot on first reading now echo in the mind’s ear. And a strong resolution remains richly satisfying, even if it was never in doubt this time around.
Not every book can stand up to a second reading. Sometimes one’s taste changes, as well it might over a lifetime. During my high school years I thought the world of James T. Farrell, and his Studs Lonigan and Danny O’Neill novels opened a window on the world for me. I’ve no less respect for Farrell now, but got nowhere when I tried rereading him a few years ago; I found his naturalism plodding and turgid.
At the same early age, I read Leon Uris’s Battle Cry with great enjoyment, and felt I knew each of those marines personally; I know better than to try revisiting those pages, certain my older self would find the work impossibly simplistic.
Agatha Christie would seem an unlikely candidate for rereading, with so much of her strength vested in the brilliance of her plotting and the surprise of her resolutions. Yet often enough over the years I’ve chosen one of her old titles from a ship’s library, and never failed to push through to the end. Armed with the knowledge of what was coming, I could seek to observe just how she did what she did.
As the years pass, I find another positive aspect of rereading, albeit an unsettling one. I took a second trip last year through the World War II novels of Alan Furst, and was surprised to discover how much I’d entirely forgotten of books I’d read with great pleasure not that many years ago. Parts were familiar, of course, but great sections were not.
Unsettling indeed. It does give one a harrowing glimpse of the future. I can look forward, it would appear, to meeting new people every day—in and out of books.
This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews May 2014 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.