Monday, March 19, 2012


 As I've said, a journalist wrote to me back in November asking if I'd reread any books that mattered to me and asking various questions about the importance of rereading to writers.  I wrote an insanely long e-mail in reply which some readers have said they would like to see.  

I have doubts about this, which strike me more forcefully now that I have read Sheila Heti's piece for the Globe and Mail.  I find that the business connected with publishing a book makes it hard to do any serious writing, which means that I am increasingly cut off from the things I actually care about (one of which is, of course, reading); but in the meantime it is necessary to construct and deploy a social self as a matter of professionalism.  This somehow ends up being a tapdancer with a Gene Kelly grin.  (That's the way it feels, anyway.)  I don't know if Heti feels that way too; when she shows up for public engagements she somehow comes across as genuine, so then I feel there is something wrong with me for covering up alienation with a lot of flippant remarks. Still, I have written 5000 words of a story in the last day, so perhaps the thing that used to be there is coming back.

Maybe if I had taken more time I would have written less manically and at a more sensible length; I had the feeling that if a journalist has a deadline to meet it's unhelpful to spend too much time self-editing. That might not be true. Anyway, this is what I said at the time, with some afterthoughts:

Dear Mr. Bowman

Barbara sent me your e-mail and I instantly began thinking of books and writing them down, and when I got to the end I could not BELIEVE I had left off X Y and Z and put them in, and then remembered U, V and W-- and in the end had a list of appalling length which must be far more than what you need.  As well as so many thoughts on the subject of rereading that these too had to be excessive.  So I am sending what I have in the hope that you can discard whatever you can't use.

General thoughts:

Rereading is important for writers because people in the publishing industry constantly give advice couched in terms of helping the reader.   If you are not only a reader, or even a rereader, but a rerererererererererereader, you know this is complete bollocks. "The" reader does not exist.  The 9-year-old who read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe 50 times in a year is genetically identical to the 54-year-old who has read Invisible Cities more times than she can count (if certainly not 50).  The 16-year-old who read Pride and Prejudice as historical romance (I know Austen was forbidden, but really) is genetically identical to the 54-year-old who reads it for its social analysis, its savagery.  (The 16-year-old would have had no interest in Goffman or Bourdieu; the 54-year-old sees Austen as their intellectual cousin.)  As a rereader you can't be an amnesiac: you KNOW there were books you loved and outgrew, books you hated first time, admired 20 years later.

There are probably a hundred or so books I've read two or even three times - wonder what to read, think Oh, I'll read Bleak House again.  The rereadings that stay in the mind are books reread addictively - it's not just a question of countable number of times, they are books I would always want to have around while prey to the addiction, books in comparison with which other books were pale, stale, uninteresting. 

This is crucial for a writer: you discriminate between the real thing and the also-rans, the would-be imitations. And it seems rereading is also one way to self-knowledge.  Sometimes you outgrow an addiction; you observe the passions of an earlier self (Nancy Drew. . .).  But sometimes the pleasure remains unchanged (Alice in Wonderland, say).  Sometimes you keep going back to a book because its argument is complex and you don't grasp it fully the first or even second time (for me John Hicks' Market Theory of Money and Zaller's Nature and Origin of Public Opinion would be examples).  And sometimes you keep going back because a book has far-reaching implications, and as you see it leading to more and more exciting possibilities you need to refer to the book again and again (I have been going back to Edward Tufte's books on information design for the last 15 years.)

Books sometimes feel as though reread when they're not, because present at so many other readings: Pound gave me the impetus to read follow work I loved in translation in the original language, Proust gave me a way understanding worldliness, and they seem to be with me whatever book happens to be in my hand.

Appallingly long list, more or less chronologically (the most addictive rereading in childhood and adolescence):

By proxy, age 4, The Little Engine That Could, 400 times?  Winnie the Pooh, countless times. (Loved the Englishness of it.)

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, first time age 8, probably 20 times since (I know "The White Knight's Tale," "Jabberwocky," "The Walrus and the Carpenter" by heart).  Loved the device of stepping into another world; the logical madness.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (C S Lewis) and Ajax Golden Dog of the Australian Bush (Mary Elwyn Patchett): 50 times, in alternation, at the age of 10.  [Did not know of the other books in the Narnia series for 2 years; never owned the others, so read the series fewer times than I otherwise would have.]  In different ways, children leading their own lives apart from the alien world of grown-ups.

The Man in the Brown Suit: Agatha Christie (1st at age 13, then innumerable times)  
A heroine with a happy beginning (Mamma died when she was a baby, Papa dies of pneumonia by the end of Ch. 1: "I had always longed for adventure.  My life had such a dreadful sameness, you see." A witty villain, Sir Eustace Pedler, combination of Mr Fairlie and Count Fosco in Collins' Woman in White (for about a year I wrote my diary in the manner of Sir Eustace).  Clever use of different sorts of documents to carry forward narrative. 

Mary Stewart's non-Arthurian "romantic thrillers,"  countless times between ages 12 and 16.  Loathed any kind of straight romantic fiction, in these the appeal (slightly odd now) was a thriller set in or in the aftermath of totalitarian or other atrocity (the Holocaust, say, or time of the Greek colonels), with a love interest. 

P G Wodehouse, Leave it to Psmith!!!! The name Psmith is a comic invention of genius, perfect for the character.  The absurdly contrived plot was one of PGW's best (and he was a master of such things); in moments of gloom I think back to Psmith, masquerading as a sensitive poet, inspecting the line 'across the pale parabola of joy' and hoping he will not be asked to explain it.  How many times have I read it? 10? 15? 20? Surely not more than 20? But if not only because I devoured as many other PGWs as I could get my hand on, because otherwise even Psmith might grow stale.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, first at 14, then maybe once a month for 2 years? Is that possible? Loved premise of walking out the door for adventure; loved the runes and Elvish script and the philological appendices, was maddened because one could not learn the whole language. Led me indirectly to Greek; realized at some point that this offered the charms of JRRT's appendices, and a literature not written singlehandedly by J R R Tolkien.

The Three Musketeers and all sequels, maybe 5 times? Count of Monte Cristo, 3, 4? [Began reading Musketeers in French the second time around, so all this voracious reading of Dumas was probably what made me a fluent reader of French, able to tackle Proust independently...]  Implausible, convoluted plots; excellent villains; oaths: Parbleu! Mordieu!

Evelyn Waugh, Scoop. Read this first for a course on the British novel at age 18, have probably read it 5 or 6 times since, and it is always a joy.  Source of the catchphrase "Up to a point, Lord Copper." The wit, the savagery one loves in British writers.

Diminishing returns: Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim.  Read this at the same time as Scoop and thought it very funny.  Went back to it 5 or 6 years later, thought it much less funny than remembered.  5 or 6 years later returned, idiotically, thinking I might have misremembered the second time, found it virtually unreadable.  KA too invested in his character (unlike the cool distance of Waugh); too self-righteous.

Much of Henry James 2 or 3 times in my twenties.  Always a world of sinister misunderstandings.

Moby-Dick: read this obstinately at 16 (having been told I was too young), found it tedious beyond belief, reread at 33 and saw that it was a work of a genius, with a glorious use of language. 

Tristram Shandy:  Insane contortions of narrative, language. First time, could not believe anything so brilliant existed in the world.  With time one forgets, goes back, is again transfixed.

Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler: was dazzled when I read this in 1980, to the point of buying the Italian edition at Blackwell's; then bewildered, rereading in 1983, to find a slightly nauseating archness, not to say downright cuteness.  I still admire it and have reread it a couple of times since, but have to look past the cuteness.  I was also dazzled by Invisible Cities, which I also have in Italian, and this is better every time. I open it and read a chapter and then another chapter probably once a week.  The inventiveness, the perversity of the imaginary cities; the ferocious oulipian beauty of its structure.

Homer, Iliad and Odyssey, probably 3 times in Greek, keep wanting to read them again and finding work gets in the way.

Stefan Zweig's Schachnovelle (Game of Kings) - Man taken prisoner by Nazis, kept in solitary confinement to crack him and extract information, he steals a chess book from the pocket of a coat, plays chess obsessively with himself, goes mad, is released, is lured into one last game . . . I loved the madness of the book, the obsessiveness, the way the man, having played "one" last game, is offered another and says Selbstverständlich ("Obviously" - but it's so much better in German).

*Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker: Neglected equal of The Waste Land.  I love this for the extraordinary invented language, the appropriation of technical terms, meaning lost, into explanatory myths; with most novels you can "see how it's done," but here I don't. Have read it three or four times, and admire it more fervently every time.


Plato's Symposium: read first at 19, many times since. I love this for its mannerism, the embedding of a narrative within a narrative within a narrative, marked throughout by the accusative and infinitive construction with which Greek marks indirect discourse. Also for the nastiness of Socrates to Alcibiades. Also for the way the characters, setting out philosophical positions, are more real than "psychologically realistic" characters.

Aristotle: Poetics, Nicomachean Ethics: we are what we repeatedly do - relevance of this to moral action.  [And, of course, to rereading . . .]

*AC Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: Read first when I was 24, many, many times since. Danto asks how physically indistinguishable objects can be different works of art, or one a work of art one not, and elucidates an immense range of aesthetic phenomena.  Central to the way I think about fiction.

*Erving Goffman: Asylums, Stigma, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Things went badly wrong when my first novel was published, EG has a way of looking at the human in the social machine that was a comfort. 

Barthes: S/Z, Essais critiques, Mythologies, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes: Barthes has a way of looking at himself looking at the world that is never infatuated, never narcissistic; he is in love with ideas. One sees why Bourdieu was maddened, but that is the very thing that draws one back.

Bourdieu, Distinction; Homo Academicus; more observation of the human in the machine.

*Renaud Camus, Tricks: Shandean account of a series of one-night stands in pre-AIDS Paris, a tour de force.

*Edward Tufte: Envisioning Information, The Visual Presentation of Quantitative Information - attention to the perspicuous presentation of data is a form of care for truth, a moral quality inseparable from intellectual rigor; have read these many, many times in the last 15 years, they transform what I think can be done with fiction.

[I have put stars by the books too few people know; can't imagine life without them. If some obvious Great Books are missing it's probably because they are generally known anyway.]

Again, I'm sorry this is so long.

with best wishes,
Helen DeWitt


That is a lovely thought.  (I am dismayed to see that in my impetuosity I left off Waugh's Handful of Dust (!), Queneau's Zazie dans le métro (tempted to say that if one reads only one book in French, this should be the book), Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot, and Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, but OK OK OK.)

Do you know this great quote?

"My dear Lady Kroessig, I have only read one book in my life, and that is White Fang. It's so frightfully good I've never bothered to read another."  (Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love - p. 80 in Vintage edition)

[have not been able to extract the quote in its context from Search Inside This Book, but the character is based on Mitford's father, who claimed to have read White Fang and never read another book for fear of disappointment.  Perhaps it might come in handy for your piece.]


[to Barbara Epler]

How lovely!

Remembered after the fact that I had forgotten to mention A Handful of Dust, Zazie dans métro, Jacques le fataliste et son maître, Flaubert's Parrot and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which is shocking but probably a good thing.

Have just been reading Helen Vendler's review in the NYRB of a new Anthology of Poetry.  She talks of major 20th-century poets, gives a list and adds in parentheses that some would include Pound.  I ask myself whether anyone who actually cares about poetry would not. Infuriating.


Liz L. said...

Thank you so much for posting this list!

leah said...

I recently read to Harvey Alice in Wonderland and also Through the Looking Glass. In retrospect I am unhappy that I own them together in one single edition ... For a 3-year old Wonderland seems like a lovely engaging story and the references to proverbs and odd sayings that a 3-year old wouldn't know can be easily overlooked because of the talking animals. But Looking Glass is just so filled with puns that it hardly comes out as English for someone who can't accept that the word right can be either the opposite of wrong or left. Still, he made me read it all, and when I thought we were all finished he brought it back to me and said, "Can we read Alex in Wonderland? Your voice is not tired!"

When I was 17 I had my wisdom teeth out and Dan read me Foucault's Pendulum until his voice was horse. One of the reasons I married him, probably. Now I wonder if other people feel as sentimental about Umberto Eco as I do...

languagehat said...

I add my thanks; it always gives me joy to read such lists by people who love books. Some entries have me nodding in agreement, others add to my mental To Be Read roster. But you know what gave me most joy? It was "Still, I have written 5000 words of a story in the last day, so perhaps the thing that used to be there is coming back." I hope it sticks around.


She talks of major 20th-century poets, gives a list and adds in parentheses that some would include Pound. I ask myself whether anyone who actually cares about poetry would not. Infuriating.

I had exactly the same reaction.

Giles W said...

Thanks for posting. I find I can re-read anything of Waugh's. Also "Junkie" by William Burroughs seems to be a book I can re-read endlessly.