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Emily Bronte

In several posts on this blog I’ve suggested that the reader read a book twice, and it seems worthwhile to explain why I think that’s generally a good idea.  Consider this possibility:  If you haven’t read a book a second time, you haven’t read the book at all.

Granted, there may be books you don’t like, or books that are sheer escapism, or books that you otherwise have no interest in starting all over again from page one.  But if the book is a novel that’s moved you deeply, or a memoir that’s impressed you with its originality, or a history book that’s taught you a great deal, my argument is that you haven’t read it – and, if you’re a promiscuous reader like me, probably won’t remember much about it – unless you’ve read it twice.

To read a book twice is to fully engage with a writer’s creative, or constructive, act, which is – if not an art form in itself – at the very least its own creative, constructive act.  I’ve discovered this for myself only recently – long after the days when I read books twice only if I had to:  to pass an exam, or to avoid appearing clueless in some academic or social setting – in other words, when it was a necessary chore.  But I’ve come to realize that I rob myself of the creative experience a book was meant to be if I set it down immediately and move on to the next – because then the crucial exchange of power that every book demands has been lost.

“The author is supreme manipulator, and the best are wickedly clever and bloody-minded . . .”

The unique pleasures of a first reading are familiar to everyone.  The more a page-turner the book is, the more that pleasure involves a kind of core disquiet:  a low-level agitation that increases with every moment as you work feverishly to reach the end – the next page highly anticipated, the previous page as good as forgotten once it’s turned.  The author is supreme manipulator in this affair, and the best are wickedly clever and bloody-minded, carrying us along on waves of thwarted expectation, emotional hills and valleys, hints and head fakes.  The best nonfiction, in my experience, demonstrates a similar (if more refined or detached) kind of momentum.

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Herman Melville

But once one reaches the destination – i.e., once we know how the book ends – the power passes to the reader, and the second reading involves not only a unique kind of nostalgia, but an ongoing, exacting judgment:  just how skillfully are the threads woven? – in the case of fiction – or just how convincing is the argument? – in the case of nonfiction.  The first and second readings are thus mutually dependent – that is, the relationship between author and consumer, reader and book, is not wholly consummated until both readings happen.  Each (re)reading experience is unique and involves its own special kind of pleasures.  Here are a few brief examples from books I’ve reviewed on this blog.

Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story comes close to being a classic mystery reread.  There’s a lot of head-faking going on in this elegant tale, but a second reading allows the reader to follow the threads, tie up loose ends, and enjoy the writer’s cleverness in the process.  My own experience of the book led to the conclusion that, given the untrustworthy narrator and the author’s modern sensibilities, little objectively “real” could be said to exist in the narrator’s world – i.e., no core chronology and no resolution – though in the author’s universe all meaning hinges on a single letter.

“A second reading makes all of the material charged with meaning in a way that the first reading does not.”

Since then, I’ve discovered that other (very clever) interpretations of this story can be successfully defended, so in some ways the book is like a classic mystery-thriller, and in other ways it isn’t.  The puzzle of the book, though, wouldn’t have been nearly so interesting without that second read – in this case, undoubtedly the richest part of the experience.

Mysteries are probably the most obvious example of books that demand second readings, but nonfiction does as well.  Michael Wallis’s account of the Donner party’s journey west, Best Land Under Heaven, is a good place to start because it reads more like a novel than the typical history book, by virtue of the subject matter alone.  Though much of the book is about the historical milieu of 1840s America, as well as a narration of the entire west-bound journey, a second reading makes all of this material charged with meaning in a way that the first reading doesn’t.

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Sir Walter Scott

On first read, for instance, the chapter at the center of the book – a letter written by Tamzene Donner – is an interesting historical oddity.  On second read, though, the letter takes on a poignancy that defines the very heart of the tragic tale.  Like de Vigan’s psychological thriller, a letter is of primary importance – an interesting connection between the two books that recalls both the power of epistolary novels of earlier centuries, and the importance of the personal letter in historical research.  But that’s a subject for another post!

Finally – Anatomy of Terror, by Ali Soufan, provides the most literal example of the reader wresting control from the author.  This is a book that, in my opinion, could have read like a novel with the addition of a few conventional appendices – a cast of characters, a chronology, some maps and photos.  I worked my way a second time through the book – which was dense with meaningful detail –  by constructing my own list of names and a timeline, and consulting Wikipedia for maps and photos.  In short, I did the job an editor should have done, and the effort was well worth it.  Without that labor-intensive second read, the entire experience would have been a waste of time, as I surely would have retained little if any of the text, other than its compelling first and last chapters.

So for me, every second reading of every book, for completely unique reasons, is always a gold mine of activity, well worth the endeavor.  I simply haven’t read a book – and certainly would not presume to critique it – unless I’ve read it twice.

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