I ought to be writing a substantive post about books (or something else). But I am just not feeling up to it. Instead, I decided to fill up blog space with some light weight (but hopefully not boring) observations about books I have read more than once.
It is not often that I go back and re-read a book. But there is a small number of books which have received my attention a second time - some because I wanted to read them again and others because my book club selected a book I had read a long time ago and I had to jog my memory. All the books I list here to describe how they withstood the test of time, were first read in my teens or early twenties and revisited years and decades later. The experiences of a repeat read were varied for different books and sometimes they were surprising. (Please feel free to chime in with your own experience of reading a book a second time.)
Older and Newer Classics:
First round - mesmerising. Second time - equally electrifying.
First round - good reading but somewhat rustic, frumpy and boring. Second time - stunningly beautiful for their astute, soulful and gentle insights that I recognized more fully in light of my mature perspective.
Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell) : First round - a riveting account of love, romance, war and passion in an historic era (I was thirteen when I first read GWTW). Second time - melodramatic and somewhat soap operatic account of love, romance, war and passion in an historic era.
War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy): Failed to go beyond 100 pages - both times! Now you know my secret. I am incapable of reading Tolstoy. Anna Karenina met with a similar fate but that I tried just once!
Popular politics / philosophy:
Darkness at Noon (Arthur Koestler): First read around age tweny two, repeated two decades later. A polished gem both times around.
Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand): I had read three books by Ayn Rand in my late teens. Of these only Atlas Shrugged got a second look.
First round: Growing up against a background of hypocritical parroting of touchy-feely and somewhat utopian sloganeering of Gandhian philosophy by Indian leaders and elders, Ms Rand seduced with her "brave" individualism. Second time: With my adult appreciation of the simple, altruistic and cooperative spirit of Gandhianism (with which I don't agree fully but that is a whole different post) and other liberal ideals, Ms Rand and her selfish, narcissistic and reactionary world view engendered revulsion and disdain.
Catch 22 (Joseph Heller): This one was a stunner both times but for different reasons.
First round - made me laugh, made me cry and took me to seventh heaven. I loved the book. Second time - I started to read it recently after recommending it to my book club because I thought in view of Bush's war, it would be fitting reading material. My friends, those who had never read it, loved it. Amazingly enough, I myself felt oddly disconnected from Heller's masterful grasp of absurd humor, human tragedy and satirical take on war. I stopped reading after the first few chapters in order to preserve the memory of the euphoria I had felt when I first read it in my early twenties. Not at all what I had expected from re-reading a book I still consider one of my favorites!
Crime, suspense and mystery:
This is one category which rarely lends itself to re-reading - when you know the ending, what's the point? But I did revisit a few of the favorites of my youth for retro-enjoyment and because once I was in a situation where there was not much else to read. Here I will go by the authors rather than particular books. I have pretty much read everything that the following three wrote, starting around the age of eleven.
Ian Fleming's James Bond novels: First round - thrilling and titillating high adventure. Second time - what a buffoon!
Apart from the books mentioned above, there are some other authors who have retained my admiration through the ages. Many are Bengali (my native tongue) writers unfamiliar (except perhaps, Tagore) to the majority of readers of A.B. Another not widely familiar author (to US readers) who still unfailingly holds my attention is P.G. Wodehouse. I wrote what probably qualifies as my most spontaneously joyous post on A.B. about the incredible Wodehouse. Oddly enough, one literary genre which still brings a smile to my adult lips is Bengali children's literature . This amazing and little known (outside the Bengali reading community) body of literary work probably qualifies as the most sophisticated children's literature in the world. I know it sounds surprising. But take it from someone whose reading juices were tapped early for a life time of addiction by the delicious smorgasbord of Bengali kiddie lit. I won't prolong this particular discussion by digressing into that unfamiliar and hard to explain territory. Those who are interested, please read mine and other afficionados' comments on Amardeep Singh's excellent post on Bengali sci-fi and children's writing.
I don't know if anything is to be deduced about the lasting value or innate quality of a book by measuring whether it delights once, twice or forever. If a book manages to give the reader enjoyment at the time it is read, for whatever reason, that I think is triumph enough.
Update: By sheer coincidence, I discovered this morning that this week's Newsweek has an enjoyable article on boomer reading habits. Now that the oldest of baby boomers are turning sixty, Newsweek has been running a Boomer File of their cultural backdrop of humor, politics, music and literature. The boomer reading list in Newsweek, unlike mine, only includes iconic literary works published in the 1950s and 60s.