Why Re-Read?

In an age of unbelievable artistic abundance, Nick Martens urges us to slow down and re-examine the works that really matter.

Whenever I pick up Catch-22 again, I feel a little jab of guilt. It’s my favorite book and never gets old, but I know that the two weeks I’ll spend back in Pianosa could be used to explore someplace new. So why, then, am I recidivating to Catch-22 when I’ve been meaning to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for months? Why am I going through Bone a second time when my brother’s copy of From Hell looms on the shelf? Why am I re-watching The Wire when I’ve been told to get into Six Feet Under since high school?

Because, when it comes to great works, re-reading (or watching, or playing) is necessary. The descriptions in Catch-22 are so brilliant and dense that something new amazes me every time–and I still haven’t untangled the book’s chronology. My first reading of Bone went by in such a blur that every twist surprised me again two years later, not to mention the detail and diversity in the artwork. And my second pass through The Wire has illuminated an embarrassing array of connections and subtleties that flew right over my head just a few months ago. Sure, the suspense is dampened on a revisit, but by divorcing yourself from the basic “what happens next?” mindset, you’re free to investigate the nuances that make great art tick.

Courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution

This probably isn’t news to anybody. Re-reading is fantastic, when you have the time. But the pressures of modern culture warn against such indulgence. Especially for the young and internet-enabled, the amount of books, movies, TV shows, newspapers, comics, blogs, magazines, videogames, and music, we feel the need to keep up with is insane. How often do we say, “Oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to check that out…”? I doubt most people consider this pressure more than an annoyance, but for those like me who take culture a bit too seriously, the crush of new stuff can cause genuine anxiety.

The problem with confronting this problem directly is that it’s insurmountable. For every Haruki Murakami novel I read, there are a dozen literary classics that I was assigned, and skipped, for senior year English class. If I kept an honest reading list, the blanks would far outnumber the check marks. And every year, no matter how hard I try, the gap grows wider. Looking at “Best Movies / Books / Albums / Games 2007″ lists reveals depressing insufficiencies in my cultural currency.

Trying to keep up seems like the best solution, but to do so is to accept the pressured lifestyle. It’s an acknowledgement that not only will you remain perpetually behind, but also that you’ll do your best to stay current. This haste wreaks havoc on people’s reading habits.

Take Catch-22, for example. Whenever I meet someone who’s read it, it doesn’t take long for me to steer the conversation towards Milo Minderbinder (tied at the top of my “Great Literary Villains” list with Iago). Milo is one of the main characters in the book–he has three chapters named after him, while every character gets just one. But almost nobody remembers Milo.

If people can forget something as important as Milo, what else are they missing from the book? In this amnesiac scenario, the act of re-reading is hardly traveling a well-beaten road; it’s more like clearing out an overgrown trail. Some elements will be familiar, others might ring a bell, still more will seem entirely new, and a few will be cast in such a different light as to bear no resemblance to their memory.

Courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum Collection

I recently spent a lazy afternoon reading Charle Burns’s extraordinary comic Black Hole. Burns serialized the project over 10 years, and I spent maybe five hours with it. Did I finish Black Hole? Sure, I burned through the story, but the book is thick with artistic and symbolic detail. Burns would spend an entire week just drawing debris to decorate the inside covers of the comics. After my cursory reading, I can’t claim to know anything significant about the work. But when the mood strikes me, later this summer or in a few years, to re-read it, I can take my time. Since I’ll be less gripped by the plot, I can look up some interviews with Burns, track down the Hemingway short story mentioned by one of the characters, and spend sufficient time marveling over the artwork and piecing together the symbols. That will be a better reading of Black Hole.

I’m not saying that this kind of rigorous re-evaluation needs to be applied to every book. And when I say “great work,” I mean so broadly. If you think Catch-22 is needlessly complicated and overly cynical, you probably don’t need to re-read it. But if you enjoyed it the first time ‘round, and thought it expressed a compelling message, consider picking it up again. Of course, no one is going to ignore recent releases just to pore over old favorites. I just think it’s misguided to feel that reading a new book is a better use of time than rediscovering a familiar one. A check mark on a reading list means nothing if you never truly finish the book.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.