On Re-Reading Books

farnsworthIn the words of Futurama’s dithery Professor Farnsworth, “Good news, everyone!” — apparently, I am incredible. At least, I am according to this rather fatuous report, “Oops — I Read It Again!” (link from Neil Gaiman’s blog).

Why am I incredible? (You read my blog, yet have to ask?!) Because, it seems, I’m part of a rare 13% of the reading population — not just that 77% of it who admit to having “enjoyed a book* so much that they’ve gone back to read it again” (I’m not sure why “book” gets an asterisk — perhaps it’s a term that needs a more precise definition for the sort of people who read a site with a name like booktrade.info), but I’m part of the 17% who “have re-read a favourite tome more than five times” (surely not all of them were tomes, you lazy journalist, you — try scratching your head a few times before reaching for the thesaurus!)

Alright, so maybe reading a book — or several, I’ll not get into specifics yet — five times or more is odd, but surely it’s not “incredible”? But that’s just the word-geek in me getting picky. (To show how picky I can get, I also wonder why the report gives “C. S. Lewis” a full-stop after each initial, “J. K Rowling” only one, and “JRR Tolkien” none.) What makes this all the more distressing is that this is a report, I assume, from some sector of the book trade itself — as if the trade were so assured the wares it sells are so deeply worthless that reading them even once, after buying them, were to take things a bit far. (Certainly true in the case of sleb biographies and their like — maybe that’s the special meaning of book-with-an-asterisk I was looking for.)

Now that my incredible nature is out in the open, I might as well be frank about it. Not only do I habitually re-read books, I tend to regard reading a book for the first time as merely an opportunity to decide whether it’s worth re-reading — the re-reading bit being, for me, where the fun really starts. I tend to only keep books if I plan to re-read them at some time.

fantasy_100_bestI haven’t always been like this. I used to be un-incredible, at least most of the time. (Except as a kid. All kids demand re-reading of the books they like. They’re not stupid.) I can’t actually pinpoint when my incredible, perhaps even mythical, status kicked in, but aside from re-reading favourite Doctor Who novelisations (which, at one point in my life, were all I read), I tended to read books only once. What happened was something like this: I kept buying new books and finding they were bad. After a while, getting distressed that I hadn’t read anything good for a while, and worried that it was me that had gone wrong rather than the hallowed publishing industry, I decided to revisit a book I had enjoyed, just to make sure. To my relief, I found I enjoyed it even more. And then, perhaps, other new approaches to this whole business of “reading books” (that’s books-without-asterisks) started to suggest themselves. Such as the idea that books which have been around for a long time, and which have continually been published and read for decades, if not centuries, might actually be better than new books. Classics, as they’re sometimes called, even by people without thesauruses. This was when I started reading (and re-reading) books like Moorcock and Cawthorne’s Fantasy: 100 Best Books and Horror: The 100 Best Books edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, and doing bizarre things like frequenting secondhand bookshops.

I know I’m probably still in a minority to re-read at least as much as I first-time read, but I do genuinely find it more pleasurable to re-read a book. Perhaps this is in part because I am, by nature, rather untrusting and over-critical as a reader. I want to know a book is worth investing in before I really go for it 100% in the reading — but if I am untrusting, it’s only because I’ve read so many bad and disappointing books that I’ve ended up that way.

murakami_sputniksweetheartThe main objection to re-reading a book is that there’s no point because you know what’s going to happen. But, to me, knowing what’s going to happen not only doesn’t matter, it actually makes it better. Exposed to stories as much as we are, we’ve all developed enough of a “story sense” to second-guess where a story is going anyway, and the real pleasure of a twist-in-the-tale is not so much the twist itself, as how skilfully it’s handled. My two most recent re-reads are both minor books by favourite authors — Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami, and The Violet Apple by David Lindsay. The first time I read Sputnik Sweetheart was when I’d just discovered Murakami. At the time, I’d only read his massive (genuinely tome-like) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and in comparison found the slim Sputnik Sweetheart a bit disappointing, though with a strikingly weird bit in the middle (where a young woman gets stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel for the night and has an experience that turns her hair completely white), mainly because I wasn’t sure how to understand the end. Re-reading it, knowing how it ended, everything fell into place and made sense, and I had time to relax and understand other things about the book, like how each of the three main characters faces the same sort of strange crisis, but one evades it, one falls before it, and one — maybe — triumphs. With The Violet Apple, I found that knowing what was going to happen at the end only made the build-up much more poignant and emotionally powerful. (That’s how tragedy always works. Macbeth’s downfall was only a surprise for Macbeth himself.)

Another possible peculiarity of mine comes into play here, and this is to do with re-reading books by certain authors. The more you read of an author’s work, the more you get to understand them, and the more you get out of reading them. The first time I read the David Lindsay book, The Violet Apple, I was still under the spell of his most famous and impressive book, A Voyage to Arcturus, and so I read The Violet Apple with that other book in mind. But The Violet Apple is a very different book. It’s very un-fantastic, whereas A Voyage to Arcturus is almost nothing but fantastic; it’s also very human, whereas A Voyage to Arcturus is starkly inhuman. A Voyage to Arcturus could never contain a sentence such as “She could not bear that awful family loneliness and unsympathy”, but The Violet Apple does and, knowing Lindsay to be capable of writing such a sentence, I will in future re-read A Voyage to Arcturus slightly differently.

You don’t listen to a favourite song only once, do you? Why should books be any different, just because they take more time to re-experience? Human beings are memory-loving creatures. We treasure our experiences and go back over them, in our heads, again and again. Sometimes we do this to understand the experiences better, sometimes it’s just because revisiting them is so enjoyable. The reading of a book is an experience just like any other, and the reasons for doing it can be just the same.

fourtimesbooksTo end off, a not-necessarily-complete list of books I’ve read four times or more (with no explanations or apologies — though, to intensify my weirdness, I’ll say that at least two in this list are books I’ve re-read straightaway after reading them for the first time): Moving Zen by C W Nicol, The Belgariad by David Eddings, A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay, The Outsider by Colin Wilson, The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin, Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, The Influence by Ramsey Campbell, The Drowned World by J G Ballard, V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd… Not to mention the countless short stories I’ve re-read many more times than four or five. Short stories are, after all, so much more re-readable. But simply reading short stories nowadays is enough to commit you to a very dark and dingy corner of the asylum reserved for book-readers. Catch you re-reading the things, and they throw away the key. Before you eat it, or do yourself an injury with it or something.

Comment imported from the old version of Mewsings:
Gavin Burrows

Hi Murray, My response here!



After Dark by Haruki Murakami

afterdarkNight is where you hide from yourself, and where dark deeds are done. Murakami’s latest (published here in June, but available in Japan since 2004, where it was titled, in a Coca-Cola kind of way, Afutãdãku) is a short novel exploring the nightside of human existence: its characters are all either lost, hiding, caught up in or drifting through the dark regions of a city after dark. Covering the events of a single night between 11:55p.m. and 6:40a.m. (the chapters are headed with little clock icons), and taking place in a series of soulless city sets (all-night eateries, a love-hotel, an office after-hours), we follow a succession of rambling conversations between Mari Asai (whose beautiful sister, after announcing she was going to sleep for a while, hasn’t woken for several months) and Takahashi (law student by day, jazz musician by night, on the cusp of deciding which life he’s going to commit to), witness the aftermath of a characteristically Murakamian “act of overwhelming violence” in a love hotel, and get a glimpse of the even stranger, rather Lynchian psychodrama involving Mari’s sleeping beauty of a sister and the sinister Man with No Face.

I mention David Lynch because he (in films like Mulholland DriveLost Highway and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) as well as Murakami (in books like Dance, Dance, Dance and The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, and many of his short stories) share an incredible ability to muster a sense of intense, looming psychological menace far more threatening than mere physical violence (though both Murakami and Lynch’s works feature sudden eruptions of over-the-top violence). Both also cast a cool air of light, quirky humour, as well as containment and composure over the surface of their works — Murakami’s prose is friendly, simple, almost innocent, Lynch’s films have an air of innocence that takes you by the hand, as a child would, only to lead you to places no child would ever go. This surface expresses, perhaps, the blank perplexity Murakami and Lynch’s characters feel towards whatever dark inner impulses they are forced to struggle with (a situation often captured through the contrast of a day-life as overbright and perfect as their night-life is sordid, dark and ugly — think of teen queen Laura Palmer’s nights of drugs and prostitution in Twin Peaks). Thankfully, both creators also take their excursions through the dark to the other side, affording at least a glimpse of redemption (Laura Palmer beatified as a glowing Christmas tree fairy at the end of Fire Walk With Me, providing an incredible feeling of hope to the end of one of the most harrowing films I’ve ever seen). Murakami’s moments of redemption are more low-key, but equally poetic in being felt rather than understood. By the end of After Dark there’s a sense that decisions have been made, paths chosen, freeing the two youngsters, Mari and Takahashi, from being stuck in the night-time limbo where the others they have met (the violent businessman Shirakawa, the love hotel cleaner Korogi) are hopelessly mired.

A definite improvement on the rather rambling and overlong Kafka on the Shore, After Dark is not just classic Murakami, I think it is a new a step in an already talented author’s work.


In Search of a Distant Voice by Taichi Yamada

yamada_voiceI was prompted to buy In Search of a Distant Voice because Amazon recommended it to me and, for once, they seemed to have actually found the sort of thing I might like. The recommendation came because of the Haruki Murakami books I’d bought from them, and I thought Yamada’s novel sounded a bit Murakami-ish, so gave it a go.

I was wrong about that “a bit”. It feels totally Murakami-ish, right from the start:

“Tsuneo got up at four-thirty in the morning. He was in the Otemachi Multi-Office Government Complex in Tokyo, in the rest station on the third floor of Building One. Four-thirty was pretty early, it’s true, but that’s how it goes.” (p. 1)

The studied casualness of that “pretty early, it’s true, but that’s how it goes” sounds almost like a parody of the sort of stylistic tic Murakami employs, like a doctor’s bedside manner, to set his readers at ease, as if he’s trying to let you know that he’s just this, you know, normal kind of guy who somehow had this plain weird thing happen to him. In his homeland, Murakami is known for his casual tone. Though not the first to do so, he’s noted for using the most informal Japanese word boku, rather than the traditional, and more literary, watashi, as his narrator’s word for “I”. (I can’t speak Japanese; this comes from Jay Rubin’s book, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words). I don’t know how much of an impact Murakami has had on the culture of his homeland, aside from being very popular, so it’s difficult to tell if Yamada, in writing like this, is simply adopting a commercial style. Of the few other contemporary Japanese writers I’ve read, Banana Yoshimoto (yes, that’s a name, not a fruit drink) is another one who sounds very Murakami-ish. (Funnily enough, the only other contemporary Japanese author I’ve read, and the only one who doesn’t sound like Haruki Murakami, is the unrelated Ryu Murakami.) But aside from the style, one thing that links Haruki Murakami with these two is the dreamy strangeness of their plots, which was what I was after anyway, so I’m not going to complain about Yamada’s Murakami-ness. (The translator, Michael Emmerich, has also translated the aforementioned Banana, so maybe that has something to do with it.)

In Search of a Distant Voice is about Kasama Tsuneo, a young man working for Japanese immigration, who one day starts to hear a woman’s voice in his head. Tsuneo has a bit of a mystery in his past — something happened eight years before, in Portland, Oregon, which sent him running back to Japan desperately determined “to be normal”. Once he’s got over the shock of hearing this voice, and once he’s decided he’s not mad, he tries talking to it.

There are a few moments in the book which tread that wonderful line between dark and comic, moments both excruciating and disturbing, as Tsuneo tries to work out if the woman’s voice belongs to a real person (and not a dead or hallucinated one), but this dangerous tone isn’t kept up, and for most of the time the book doesn’t quite know (or let the reader know) what sort of story it’s telling. For instance, there’s an obvious mystery about Tsuneo — just what happened to him in Portland? — as well as about the woman — who is she? — and as, at the end, all is revealed about Tsuneo’s past, I expected to have the other mystery resolved, too. I don’t want to give the ending away by saying this, but I think I’d have enjoyed the book more if I had been prepared for the way it leaves some things unresolved. Now, I don’t mind unresolved. It can create quite a subtle and emotional depth to a story. But if you get unresolved when you’ve been led to expect resolved, that emotion tends to be frustration, which isn’t either subtle or enjoyable.

Having said that, I liked the book enough (after mentally readjusting my view of what it was, having finished it). At worst, it suffers from being a short novel with only the depth of a short story — though in that it could have been worse: too many books nowadays are much longer and don’t even have that depth (grumble, grumble, where’s my cardigan…) Read for atmosphere alone, as a sort of mood piece, or as a sort of Kafka-esque portrait of modern man in search of a soul, it has nevertheless intrigued me enough to give Yamada’s other novel, Strangers, a go.