Read, Re-read, Repeat


Master and MargaritaI’m currently re-reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantasy novel of Soviet life under Stalin, The Master and Margarita. Since this is actually a newer translation than the original one I read many years ago, I’m not sure it properly qualifies as “re-reading.” However, for me, re-reading a novel is uncommon.

I seldom have the time to re-read, because my current reading list never dwindles (in fact it grows as I continue to add books to my library). Plus my interests and not static: I constantly seek to learn new things.*

I always have a dozen books on the go, piled beside my bed in an unruly assortment. Most of these are nonfiction: history, politics, philosophy, science and style guides in particular.

Among that pile are books about books, including a newcomer I added a week or so ago: Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great. It’s a book about the joys of re-reading science fiction and fantasy.

I tend not to read such collections of reviews, but when I glanced through her pieces while standing in the bookstore, I was impressed by not only how many authors and titles she has read, but on how many I didn’t know.

I’ve always thought of myself as a scifi buff with a fair bit of background knowledge and reading (not, I’ll admit, as much about fantasy). But Walton’s reading list makes me an amateur who has barely scratched the surface. There are many whose names I recognize, and some works I’ve read, but among the dozens of titles and authors are far too many with which I have little knowledge, let alone have read.

And Walton is re-reading them, That simply flabbergasts me. I’ve always thought of myself as a voracious reader, but she outstrips me as rapidly as a motorcycle passes a pedestrian on a highway.

Of all the novels I have re-read, scifi and fantasy are at the top of the list. I started reading scifi around the age of ten, with the Tom Swift Jr. series; books I got from family for Christmas and birthdays and which I eagerly devoured. In my teens I was reading Andre Norton, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Kenneth Robeson (Doc Savage),Ben Bova, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and many others. I had amassed a healthy collection of paperbacks bought with my meagre allowance and lunch money saved for more intellectual pursuits (remember those Ace Doubles that had two novels back-to-back? I still have a few…).

I recall vividly when I first read Dune. It was the year the Beatles released their second movie, Help, and then at the end of the year, their ground-breaking album, Rubber Soul. Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone was on the hit parade, the longest song ever to get radio play (all music I still listen to).

In 1965, the Vietnam War was expanding; the Civil Rights Movement was, too, and protests headlined the news. NASA’s Mariner spacecraft returned the first pictures of Mars. Fidel Castro announced to the world that Che Guevara had resigned, and left Cuba to foment revolution in Africa. The Toronto Maple Leafs finished fourth in the NHL, out of a mere six teams (another two seasons and the NHL would expand and I would lose interest in hockey entirely). The Soviets launched the Venera spacecraft towards Venus.

Boris Spassky was the up-and-coming challenger in the international chess scene. Bobby Fischer was the US champion. (They played against one another for the first time in 1966.)

I was a young teenager back then, living in a low-rent apartment in West Hill. We had moved there a couple of years earlier from a nice little suburban house in mid-Scarborough. I hadn’t known anyone in the area, and because I was younger than my classmates, hadn’t really developed a lot of friendships until my third year in high school. I depended on books to lift me out of the poverty and the loneliness of our life there.

There was no local library within walking distance. A weekly bookmobile would pull into a nearby strip mall parking lot for several hours once a week. It was bus-sized, and lined with books on both sides, with a narrow aisle between them. I could barely reach the top shelves. But I went every week to return and get new books.

I picked up Dune in that bookmobile, knowing nothing about the subject or its author. It was just a big book that would keep me busy longer than she shorter novels I was used to reading. I can still see the book in my hands, still see the spines of the books facing me as I stood there.

It sucked me in right from the first page. Its arcane vocabulary, exotic setting, the backstory that permeated the pages like the spice permeated the sands, its wonderful characters.

Even in re-reading, it has captivated me, drawn me into its well-crafted world. Dune was so remarkable that I remember the effect it had on me 50 years later.

I’ve since re-read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels, Pellucidar novels, and others of his several times and still get a kick out of them. I’ve not re-read many of the Tarzan series, however, just the first three. They’re all books I read before or around the same time I read Dune. I even re-read some of his books as recently as this summer, when I had them on my e-reader.

I’ve read Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy three times, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books at least as often. I recently started re-reading Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation Trilogy, a set I first read when I was a teenager, later, however, than when I read Dune.

Since my first encounter with it, I’ve re-read Frank Herbert’s Dune three times, and its sequel, Dune Messiah, twice, although the subsequent novels in the series only once. Dune still has its magical hold on me, the others not so. But as for the thousands of other scifi and fantasy novels I’ve read – few I’ve felt merit a re-reading.

Walton, however, has re-read many, many more titles than I could ever do. I admire her patience and passion. And her free time. She describes the book on her own website:

There’s certainly some discussion of classics of the genre, but there’s also lots of discussion of books everyone had forgotten except me, and pretty good books nobody would call classics but which deserve to be remembered and talked about.

I’m enjoying her brief descriptions of the authors and their works (130 in total), even those I am unfamiliar with; however, I don’t always agree with either her assessment of those I know or her view of themes and genres. But that’s okay. It’s not a dialogue and for me it’s an education. I’ve already added sticky-notes to several pages identifying works that Walton makes so interesting that I feeI should read them. And wonder how I missed them.

Which means my library will grow, again, and I will have even less time to re-read anything from the past. But then, one can never have too many books, can one?
* Aside from The Elements of Style, which I have read numerous times, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich are rare non-fiction exceptions: I’ve read both books twice. I have read portions of other books more than once, chapters from Darwin, for example, or parts of Carl Sagan’s and Richard Dawkins’ works, and I’m always perusing style and usage guides, but few other non-fiction books have I re-read cover-to-cover. I have read Machiavelli’s The Prince many times, but in different translations each time, and as such I don’t count them as re-reading.

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One comment

    This is interesting: Are You Reading The Wrong Books? What Science Is Saying About Fiction Readers

    Studies are showing that readers of fiction are more empathetic towards others. By engaging with a story, readers are temporarily placing themselves in a character’s shoes, therefore, the more stories you read, the more shoes you’ve tried on. It’s a fascinating insight into the world of reading.

    In 2012, Standford University did research into why this is. According to neuroscientist Bob Dougherty,

    “The right patterns of ink on a page can create vivid mental imagery and instill powerful emotions.”

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