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How to Re-read

On losing the plot.


Vladimir Nabokov, himself among the subtlest of modern novelists, thought that, if identify one must while reading a novel, the one best to identify with is the novel’s author. Nabokov meant that the most sophisticated reading of a novel entails wondering why the novelist has done what he has, worrying about his manipulating his plot successfully, trying to determine how his mind works—in other words, putting yourself in the place of the novelist.

On this point the critic Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction held that “there is nothing more that can usefully be said about a novel until we have fastened upon the question of its making and explored it to some purpose.” By “identifying” with the author of a novel, we soon become acquainted with the technical aspects of the novel—why its author chose a first- rather than a third-person narrator, decided not to dramatize certain important scenes, supplied detail in some places and withheld it in others, and much else—and are thus able to read the novel more deeply, and thereby also become able, in Lubbock’s words, “clearly and accurately” to understand the novel. By doing so, he adds, “the hours of the author’s labor are lived again by the reader, the pleasure of creation is renewed.”

We read novels and short stories differently than we read other prose works. If one reads a biography of, say, the Austrian diplomatist Klemens von Metternich and comes across the three goals he wished to achieve at the Congress of Vienna, one feels one needs to make a mental note about those three goals, somehow to be responsible for knowing what they were and why they were significant. Characters in novels rarely have such clear-cut ambitions, goals, views. Even if they do, the novels in which they appear are less about their achieving these goals than about life’s manifold ways of complicating their fate. In relation to their characters, serious novelists are themselves mini-gods, instructing these characters—and us with them—that life is more complex than they, and perhaps we with them, ever imagined. Good novels are always informing us that life is more various, richer, more surprising, more bizarre than we had thought.

In a brilliant 1978 essay called “On Reading Books: A Barbarian’s Cogitations,” Alexander Gerschenkron, a labor economist at Harvard, set out three criteria for a good book, a category that for him included novels. “A good book,” Gerschenkron wrote, “must be (1) interesting, (2) memorable, and (3) re-readable.” As sensible as these three criteria are, so are they just that unhelpful, at least from the standpoint of informing a person what he or she ought to read. One cannot, of course, know if a book is interesting until one has read it, nor if it is memorable until a length of time has passed after one has read it, nor if it is worthy of being re-read until later in life one finds both the need and the time to reread it. Gerschenkron’s criteria, then, are a useful gauge to judge the quality of what one has already read and quite useless as a guide to what one ought to read. Still, one has to admire a man who claims—and I have no doubt of the truth of the claim—to have read War and Peace at least fifteen times, and twice “starting again after having read the last page,” so little did he want to depart the rich world Leo Tolstoy had created in that magnificent, that perhaps greatest of all novels.

Which brings me to the matter of re-reading. Re-readability is not only a useful criterion for a novel’s worth, but such is the complexity of serious novels that the same novel often reads differently at different ages while other novels cannot be read beyond a certain age and still others ought not to be read until one has attained to a later age. In this connection the Italian novelist Italo Calvino has described a classic as “a book that never finishes saying what it has to say.”

I shall never forget as a young man having been swept up by John Dos Passos’s trilogy U.S.A. (comprising The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money). I can even remember where I read large chunks of the work (on my stomach on the grass at nineteen in Indian Boundary Park on the far north side of Chicago). The trilogy, whose theme is injustice in American life and how it affects people’s lives, was for the apolitical young man I then was an eye-opener. My admiration for its author, whose novels’ scope took in all of the United States, was boundless. Nineteen, perhaps a bit earlier, was the perfect time to read U.S.A. Thirty may have been too late. I never attempted to re-read the book, a work that John Dos Passos himself doubtless could not bear to re-read, since all his political ideas underwent a radical change after his return from the Spanish Civil War when he discovered the murderous malevolence of international communism.

Around the same age, nineteen or twenty, I first read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which is generally thought to be his major work. Here again I found myself greatly admiring the novel, feeling not a little envy for the panache of the expatriate generation presented in its pages. Twenty years later, as a university teacher, I attempted to teach The Sun Also Rises and found the novel not only difficult to get through but at different points laughable in its pretensions and unpleasant in its anti-Semitism. For my amusement while struggling through it I began marking the number of drinks the novel’s characters consumed in its pages, stopping as I recall at seventy-nine around page 108. Ernest Hemingway’s novel clearly failed, at least for me, the re-readability test.

With these two novelists in mind, Dos Passos and Hemingway, I have thought that perhaps novels, like movies, ought to carry codes suggesting the best age to read them: Hemingway and Dos Passos, LT (Late Teens); Aldous Huxley and F. Scott Fitzgerald, NAT (Not After Thirty); Marcel Proust and Robert Musil, NBF (Not Before Forty). Others’ novels—those of Henry Miller, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer—would of course get an X rating.

The best novels and stories change along with their readers, and they get better upon re-reading later in life. In The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, the editor Rupert Hart-Davis writes to his former Eton master George Lyttelton that he has just re-read Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey, which he first read thirty-three years earlier, when he was twenty. He reports that “to my astonishment I now think it first-rate—a shaped and finished work of art—contrived, admittedly, but none the worse for that. . . . It seems to me to have improved and mellowed in thirty-three years, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be read and enjoyed as long as books are read.” Lyttelton replies by noting that re-reading is “on the whole one of life’s greatest pleasures.”

To have written a novel or stories that can be read twenty, fifty, a hundred, or four hundred years after its composition and can also be re-read at different stages of a reader’s life is of course an extraordinary accomplishment. Memory works differently in reading fiction than in other works, even to the point of sometimes scarcely working at all. I don’t believe that we remember the details of novels in the same way that we might remember, say, a book on the history of British philosophy or another on movie musicals. Nor, I believe, are we called upon to do so. Yet odd details do stay in the mind. In Tolstoy’s story “Father Sergius,” for example, I recall how the eponymous character’s finger twirled in the air before him when he chopped it off to avert sexual temptation. In one of Henry Miller’s Tropic novels, the always down-at-the-heel Miller-like protagonist is making love to a woman standing up in a hallway when her purse falls to the floor and a coin rolls out. “I made a mental note,” the character says, “to pick it up later.” In Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, I remember the soup served to the bishop by Blanchet, the priest who accompanies him on his travels into the new world of America, of which the bishop says that “a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.”

Here is a letter that touches on my point that appeared in the August 9, 2019, issue of the Times Literary Supplement:

Sir,— I enjoyed the various reviews of Iris Murdoch in your recent issue (July 12). I have read a good many of her novels, some more than once. However, I wonder if other readers share my experience. While reading an Iris Murdoch novel I am completely captivated, thoroughly within the world she has created. No other writer I can think of has quite this effect. Yet, two days later I couldn’t tell you a thing about it. Enchantment?

Richard Bachmann, Burlington, Ontario

I share Mr. Bachmann’s experience, if not with the novels of Iris Murdoch, of which I’ve read only a few and not much enjoyed them, but with other novels and novelists. I am an admirer of the novels of Barbara Pym, all of which I have read with much pleasure. I have written in praise of Miss Pym on two separate occasions, but if you ask me today what happens in her novels Excellent Women or A Glass of Blessings, I could not tell you. I have read Dostoyevsky’s Idiot twice, yet all I can recall about it today is its hero, Prince Myshkin, a saintly naïf who suffers, like Dostoyevsky, from epilepsy. I could name other authentically splendid, and a few great, novels I have read whose plots I can scarcely recall. (“He’s lost the plot,” Australians say about people who are demented or otherwise out of it.) Ought I to feel foolish about this? Does my remembering little of what went on in these books mean that I have wasted my time, all those hours of reading with nothing to show for it?

I was pleased to find confirmation of my condition—and perhaps yours as well—in the pages of The Craft of Fiction, where Percy Lubbock writes:

Nothing, no power, will keep a book steady before us, so that we may have time to examine its shape and design. As quickly as we read it, it melts and shifts in the memory; even at the moment when the last page is turned, a great part of the book, its finer detail, is already vague and doubtful. A little later, after a few days or months, how much is really left of it? A cluster of impressions, some clear points emerging from a mist of uncertainty, this is all we can hope to possess, generally speaking, in the name of a book.

While I can produce no hard evidence that I read many novels whose plots now escape me, I nonetheless walk the streets as a man who has read all the novels of Barbara Pym, The Idiot (twice), and many other novels in which I have lost significant details of their fascinating characters’ lives. How was it, again, that Dickens’s wonderful Mr. Micawber ended up? What eventually happened to Dostoyevsky’s Nikolai Stavrogin in The Possessed? At the close of Madame Bovary, Monsieur Homais, the hypocritical Yonville pharmacist, receives the cross of the Legion of Honor, but just how did Charles Bovary take his own life? I do not worry overmuch about having lost the plots of novels—even of superior novels—because I am confident that they have nonetheless left a rich deposit in my mind of a kind that, I like to believe, goes well beyond recollecting the details of their plots.

This deposit is in part a considerable broadening of my experience. The broadening takes place in various realms. I have read histories of the Napoleonic wars, but the genius of Leo Tolstoy, in his battle sections of War and Peace, has put me in those wars in ways no straight historical account—numbering casualties, discussing strategy, toting up geopolitical significance—can hope to do. The belle époque of late nineteenth-century France, including much about it that was a great deal less than belle, is nowhere better on view than in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The peculiar feeling of displacement and yet dignity that accompanies the immigrant experience in America is on display nowhere more vividly than in the novels and stories of Willa Cather. While I may not be able to report back in detail all I have learned from them, these and other novels have enriched my own experience in countless ways.

In skillful hands, the novel can give us greater insight into history than history itself does. One could, for example, put together a list of novels that would tell more about the history and psychological condition of the United States than a general history of the subject. For me this list would include The Last of the Mohicans, The Scarlet Letter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Moby-Dick, The Red Badge of Courage, The Portrait of a Lady, McTeague, Sister Carrie, The Great Gatsby, My Ántonia, An American Tragedy, Main Street, the Snopes trilogy, Native Son, the Rabbit novels.

The knowledge—and with luck occasional touches of wisdom—that one acquires through reading novels differs from that acquired reading history, biography, science, criticism, scholarship, and all else. For one thing, it is less exact; for another it has no use outside itself. The knowledge provided by the best novels is knowledge that cannot be enumerated nor subjected to strict testing. Wider, less confined, deeper, its subject is human existence itself, in all its dense variousness and often humbling confusion. Reading great novels comports well with the best definition of education I know, that set out by the poet and Eton master William Johnson Cory, which runs:

A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school [I would insert here “you read great novels”] not so much for knowledge as for art and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and for mental soberness

Joseph Epstein’s latest book is The Novel, Who Needs It?, published by Encounter Books, from which this essay is extracted.