Second Time Charm

When I turned 56 last week, I was flooded with various age-related speculations. For instance– and I gave this concept to Weingarten for one of his columns recently (oh the selflessness of editing) — the day I was born, I was closer to the 19th Century than I was to the present day.

Awesome as it is, that is not an actionable fact (unless you consider jaw-dropping an action). But I had another insight that I can act on: There’s a moment in one’s reading life when it might make sense to stop looking for new books to read — an uncertain enterprise that produces as many disappointments as successful outcomes — and instead begin to reread all the books that not only worked for you, but had such a powerful impact that they shaped who you were and what you have become. In other words, make a list of your favorite books of all time, and read them all over again.

My list is long enough that if I stuck to the rereading plan, I’d almost certainly run out the clock before I finished them all. And I’ve actually begun — not with a book from childhood or adolescence or young adulthood, but a series of 13 novels I’d read maybe just five or six years ago. This is the Patrick O’Brian series on the English naval captain Jack Aubrey and his friend and ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin. I referenced it in a recent post, but I didn’t mention that discovering great passages you only vaguely remembered — or didn’t remember at all — is one of the great perks of rereading.

It is odd, to the point of bizarre, how much of the plot line of the books I have forgotten in just a handful of years. But that makes it even more fun to reread — you can relive even some of the plot suspense you remembered so fondly from the first time around. “I know they get out of this mess, but how?”

It’s not just the re-living that makes this exercise worthwhile. You read differently the second time through. For one thing, time has changed the you that is reading. But even more significantly, freed from trying to follow the overarching outline of the plot, learning the characters, or being distracted by the author’s feints and slights of hand, you have more attention left for the deeper structures of the book, the language itself. The language, the way the characters speak, and the way the author speaks of his characters in a restrained omniscient voice, is what I am most enjoying this second time through. I keep running into small delights — at one point, the author refers to exclamation points as “points of admiration.”  And despite the serious life-death drama, on this second read through, I’m seeing much more clearly the strong, almost slapstick strain of humor that runs through it all — to the point where I’m astonished that I didn’t note it as clearly the first time.

And it’s reassuring: the quality of the writing, the insights, the sheer craft — all are revealed in a clearer light. It’s no mystery why these books lived on in my thoughts for years. It wasn’t an accident that they were the first ones I picked up to reread.

But now I’m already curious about what will happen when I go even further back in my reading history. What would I think of something I absolutely adored when I was 16? Like Catch 22, say. Will it seem juvenile? Impossibly dated? Will I see it as the work of genius that so captivated my teenage self?

I can’t wait to find out.

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