Saturday, January 02, 2021

On re-reading in 2020

I’m going to channel Stan Lee and insist on going full bore with hyphens.  Reread is an ugly word, difficult to parse. Re-read is clumsy, but has the benefit of clarity.

Re-reading books has its pleasures and its pitfalls.  The pleasure comes in re-reading a much-loved book, rediscovering its charms, taking away a new insight each time. As with most life-long readers, I have re-read numerous books through the years. Willa Cather’s My Antonia, for example, is a book I return to every other year or so.

Walter Wangerin’s Book of the Dun Cow and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are also books I cherish and re-visit regularly.

A pandemic offers little opportunity to browse local bookstores, and on-line purchases have limited appealed. Fortunately, I have thousands of books here at home and maintain a list of books I have entertained re-reading.

Here’s where the pitfalls appear. Whether a decades-old sci-fi novel or a classic of English literature, some books simply don’t hold up well. 

I re-read Why Call Them Back From Heaven and City by Clifford Simak, Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein, Deryni Rising by Katherine Kurtz, The Peripheral by William Gibson and Lilith by George MacDonald.  Four works of sci-fi and three of fantasy. (Side note: Bradbury is impossible to categorize, but fits best in fantasy.)

Sci-fi of the ‘50s and ‘60s tends to be outdated. Predictions fall wide of the mark and cultural advances leave some older texts feeling awkward and tone deaf, i.e. a husband jocularly threatening to spank his wife for lack of obedience. Women, in these older works, are rarely fully drawn, appearing as stereotypes — the Madonna, the prostitute with a heart of gold, the shrewish wife, the empty-headed blonde.  

When I was a kid, Simak was one of my favorite sci-fi writers. I can’t say that now. The same is true for Heinlein.  I did find The Puppet Masters mildly humorous compared to the horror it evoked when I first read it at 14. And I was pleased to see that a line I vividly remembered from that first decades-old read was just as I remembered it, and still carried a frisson of horror.

Admittedly a newer work, Gibson’s The Peripheral was fine.  I primarily re-read it to set up Gibson’s newest novel, Agency.  Gibson is always worth a spin around the block.

By its nature, fantasy avoids the problems inherent in sci-fi.  Bradbury’s book was mesmerizing. MacDonald’s eerie and with its magic duels and court intrigue, Kurtz’s novel — her first — was just plain fun.

The classics, and I think each of the books that follow warrant that description, were also a mixed bag, although to a much lesser extent.  I re-read Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, They Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson. (Note: maybe I should have included Bradbury here. He does transcend genres.)

Among all these books, only Catch 22 fell flat.  A satirical look at war and the military, it felt like a one-trick pony.  It was clever, until it wasn’t.

I’m curious how broadly read Ken Kesey is today.  I found One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a powerful, insightful book that warrants a wider audience.  Perhaps a new generation will discover this merry prankster.  (Year ago, I read Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion, and loved it.  I need to track down a copy and re-read it this year.)

Slaughterhouse Five, They Things They Carried and The Long Ships cemented their status as favorite books.   (Note: Anyone who is a fan of Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom series is advised encouraged to read The Long Ships.)   

I plan to re-read more books from my home library.  Pleasures and disappointments await.

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