February 2, 2009

What book that you've read is most different on second reading?

This is a question that occurs to me while reading (and looping back in) George Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London." It's so sad, on first read, all the sufferings of poverty. The second time around, I see humor everywhere. It's uncanny!

35 comments:

Mark in Spokane said...

Henri Cardinal De Lubac's book The Drama of Atheist Humanism. At first read, it is very critical of 19th century atheism and its descendants. On a second (and now third) read I see it as a far more sympathetic analysis of its topic.

Buford Gooch said...

Catch 22. I read it as a teenager and found it hilarious. i tried to re-read it later, and found it morose.

Jim said...

When I was a teenager I devoured all Vonnegut's books and read many more than once. I loved them all.

A few years ago I picked one up (I don't remember which) and I found it juvenile and silly to the point of being unreadable.

I'm still not sure if the writing is bad, or if I've crossed some sort of curmudgeonly line.

traditionalguy said...

Does it count to have seen the movie first and then to have liked the book so much more? This is hard to remember books that long ago, and the ones that come to mind are the other way around, they seemed better the first time. Dicken's Bleak House should please Simon the second time around.

Joe M. said...

Plato's Republic. The first time around I took what Socrates says at face value. The second time through I noticed his irony. He's a tricky bastard.

Ann Althouse said...

@Jim I understand the way a book can just lose value for you the second time. That happens a lot and counts against the book. But I'm seeing something that I consider truly great: A book that gains a whole dimension that can only be absorbed the second time through because the first dimension loaded up your consciousness so much that you needed to make a second trip to get it all.

Ann Althouse said...

And by the way, law students, reading a court case a second time can reveal all sorts of things you don't absorb on the first read.

traditionalguy said...

OK, I remember Samuel Elliot Morrison's Official History of the United States Navy in World War Two as a very slow read, but recently took down several volumes and enjoyed all the small details very much more. That reminds me, after seeing Ken Burns The War on PBS, I re-read "With the old Breed at Peleliu" by one of the men whose experiences that show had featured, and I got much more out of it. Getting older is way more fun than I ever expected it to be.

John Burgess said...

John Barth's "Giles Goatboy"

At the time it came out, it was cutting-edge, mind-blowing, absolutely the stuff.

On re-reading it, I find it turgid, not half as funny as it was, and well-worth giving up before I finished.

Much the same result with "The Journal of Albion Moonlight", by Kenneth Patchen, though it was written 20 years earlier.

John Burgess said...

On seeing Althouse' comment, I'll toss in a couple of books that reveal new layers on each re-reading. Thomas Pynchon's "V." and "Gravity's Rainbow".

I've re-read each of them dozens of times and keep finding new things every time.

Ann Althouse said...

Dozens! Wow. I wonder if I've read anything dozens of times... other than a case I've taught for decades. Maybe the Sermon on the Mount. Can't think of anything else.

emery said...

"He's a tricky bastard." Hah! Well said Joe. Not to mention the ironic Plato writing about that dissembling tricky bastard Socrates. Such a reading won't gain you many friends in the academy, most will call you a ----ian and grunt and snarl as they fiddle small violins, but it will be your gain. Besides the Plato opus, my answer is Jane Austen. Beneath all the fluff and fun, fine writing and happy endings lies not only more fun but much profound seriousness. Or almost any book first read in translation then re-read in the language of its creation.

Bird rock said...

I just read Down and Out....for the first time a couple of years ago. I loved it! It seemed so fresh, so contemporary, its insights so valid that it was hard to believe it was written so long ago.

I read Ann Patchett's Bel Canto prior to 9/11 and found it absolutely mesmerizing. It's loosely based on a real hostage incident. The terrorists became sympathetic characters and for a time lived with their hostages in a perfect little fantasy. As these things usually do, it ends badly. I reread the book after 9/11 and had a completely different reaction. I was unable to sympathize with the terrorists at all and was rather ashamed that I had once done so.

Ralph said...

emery, I've read P & P nearly every year for two decades, still with enjoyment, but a little less because of the TV version's insufferable Mrs. Bennett. I may be one of the few people who would put Mansfield Park as second favorite.

I remember enjoying Joyce's Dubliners in college, but couldn't get through 3 pages of it last year. I had hopes for a reread of The Age of Innocence, but it still fell flat for me. If it's satirizing the narrator, it's too subtle for me.

emery said...

ralph, so far I've had the good fortune of not watching any tv or film appropriations. I'll take your advice and make sure I don't. And I too enjoy Mansfield Park. I can't quite remember a biting quip that puts down those of us who give PandP an annual read, but it was funny. Nevertheless, before the cherry blossoms have fallen again I'll have read it again.

traditionalguy said...

One more good the second time around and better understood is Herman Wouk's Caine Mutiny Court Marshal. The defense attorney's role in the play/book made a whole lot more sense 40 years later.

John said...

Pride and Prejudice. I read it in high school, was put off from the first sentence, and bewildered by the social interplay. I read it at 55, and was delighted.

William said...

I reread Orwell's Homage to Catalonia a while back. It's a good read. He describes the warfare in a flat, just the facts way. I think he was looking to sound more like Robert Graves in Goodbye to All That than Hemingway....I had some trouble with the politics. He describes, with satisfaction, how they used a church as a latrine. They blow up a convent in order to use the debris as firewood. He expresses regret because the convent had some architectual value....At the time I reread the book there was a lot of criticism about US disrespect for Muslim holy places and values. There didn't seem a whole lot of respect among the Spanish Republicans for Catholic values....His commanding officer got arrested by the Communists while convalescing from his war wounds. Orwell himself had to go into hiding to escape arrest. The Spanish Civil War could best be told by Kafka, not Hemingway or Orwell. Nonetheless Orwell ignores the squalor of his cause and stresses how important it is to defeat facism, no matter what....The Spanish Civil War is a great romantic myth. There was no good side. It was a war between fascists with some Catholic conservative support and Stalinists with liberal, democratic support.....Orwell details the crimes of the Communists against the anarchists but doesn't seem to realize how the excesses of his own side would be interpreted by the falangists....I think Orwell is a great writer and a true witness to his times. He is one of those writers that gets absorbed in your DNA. Nonetheless, Homage to Catalonia is better to read if you prefer the myth of the Spanish Civil War to the reality. And Gone With the Wind is a great novel of our Civil War if you wish to gloss over a few truths.

Albatross said...

James Joyce's Ulysses. The first time I read it the experience was one of tedium, like picking up rocks in a hot field. The second time I read it I thought ...

Oh, who am I kidding! Nobody's ever read that thing a second time! I'd rather read Leviticus ten times over than try Ulysses again!

Graham Powell said...

The story "The Doctor of Death Island" by Gene Wolfe. On first reading I thought the protagonist was unfairly persecuted, fighting doggedly against his fate.

Reading it again, many years later, I saw that he was a vain and self-centered man, and deserved everything he got.

Dennis said...

The first time I read Catcher in the Rye, as a younger teenager, I identified with Holden Caulfield. The second time, fifteen or so years later, I thought he was a douche who needed a good ass kicking, and the third time, ten years after that, I felt a deep empathy for him.

Donna B. said...

There are few books I read more than once. One is "From Dawn to Decadence" by Jacques Barzun.

There are so many details and tangents to follow that one reading cannot get to them all.

Pogo said...

I first read Where the Wild Things Are as a young child, and I read it again as an adult, to my own child.

For a simple children's book, its meaning was strangely deeper. I did not comprehend it until seeing the film Wit, when at the end, a dying teacher's mentor cradles her and reads to her from another children's book and exclaims, "Look at that. A little allegory of the soul. No matter where it hides, God will find it. See, Vivian?"

Beautiful.

Henry Buck said...

Here are two:

Pale Fire. On each read (I've read it about five times) I notice links and allusions that reveal greater depth than I'd imagined on the first read.

Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. On my second reading, I looked at it from the tree's perspective and have since thought of it as The Taking Guy.

pduggie said...

Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum.

Once you've read the whole thing, there is a nice give-away about the plot about 5 pages in that you miss on the first read.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I think the experience of reading Freud, and other psychoanalysts such as R. D. Laing, Karen Horney, etc., has probably changed for many people. When I first read Freud as a teenager he provided a fully formed revelation that explained the fallen condition of our species. His system, and major parts of it considered separately, now seems like a historical relic, but that may leave me more room to admire his courage as a pioneer who, along with all his mistakes, explored deep places that still scare off most people. Laing's ideology has aged even worse, but his book Knots is still a nerve-hitting, schematic-poetic catalogue of the varieties of interpersonal games.

Henry said...

The Iliad. I'm reading it again. The first time through it was mythology. It was easy to take the God's view. This time it's almost too horrific to pick up. Homer spares no details about the savagery of his heroes or the meaninglessness of the killing. The men fight and long to be done with it.

tim maguire said...

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I read it in college and thought these people are the coolest people in the world. I reread it years later and realized, wait a minute, the author is writing about having the crabs as though its the coolest thing in the world.

The bus must have been ten different kinds of disgusting and the people are jerks.

tim maguire said...

Henry, that's funny. I recently read The Giving Tree to my daughter and had the same reaction--that kid is totally unworthy of the tree's love.

Henry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Henry said...

Tim and Henry Buck -- that reminds me. My other choice is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I loved that book as a kid and recently read it to my kids, who loved it too. The carnage never registered.

It's still great. Roald Dahl is a genius, just a more ferocious genius than I remembered.

Synova said...

I tend to be more interested in which books are most the same on the second reading.

I suppose a very clever author could write "Sixth Sense" where knowing how the book ends changes the entire experience into a completely different, but equally compelling, story.

But most of the time, knowing how a book ends just takes away a lot of the tension and interest.

I was purposely reading books over again back-to-back-to-back to get past the point where I was distracted by the story anymore, so I could start to see the writing clearly to help me learn how to do it.

One author that I thought was just "okay" turned out to be fabulous. It was Lois Bujold and her Miles Vorkosigan books... the third time through I was still laughing at the jokes and still pulled past the writing and into the story.

As far as I'm concerned, that defines brilliant.

Maxine Weiss said...

I loved the Great Gatsby the first and second time...that it was the most engrossing, romantic, enchanting, tragedy.

The third time, a real downer, and it was just too depressing and pathetic to feel any romance whatsoever.

sydney said...

Second all those Jane Austen comments. When I read her as a teenager I just saw routine romance novel. As an adult, the social nuances were a delight. I've read all of her novels now. My favorite remains Persuasion.

There are two other authors I would add to the list - Tolstoy and Flannery O'Connor. I recently re-read War and Peace. How did I ever miss his point about the objective of war? To get the other side to run away.

When I first read Flannery O'Connor I thought her stories were exceptionally depressing with no goodness in any of the characters. Now, I can see the goodness, but that it's also unrecognized by the other characters.

jgm said...

"Je Piss!"

Anyway, C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength. The satire just gets deeper and deeper on rereading.