Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
The Joys of Rereading (2017-08-06)
There are many books out there in the world, some electronic, many not, some published by recognized publishers, an impressive number not. There are a quite a few good ones, many astonishingly good. There are plenty of forgettable ones unlikely to be read again, and not a few of those are formula fiction that actually isn't intended to be read again in the first place. I can't help but think that some of those formula fiction books must transcend their origins, though I also have to admit to being unable to rattle off good examples. A search engine rabbit hole for another day, my optimism on the subject being based on the law of averages. I suspect that for the loudest boosters of getting rid of the book as an object, and often not so subtly as a form of entertainment that we take active part in, many of them have little genuine experience with books in either form. Formula fiction for instance rests right on the line between active and passive reading, because once you know the formula, the words can just slip in and out of your mind with little real impact. Most "mass market fiction" is in fact formula fiction, and unexpected hits that become at minimum trilogy fodder often fall into the same category in the later members of the series. An excellent example I can vouch for is Anne Rice's Tale of the Body Thief, versus its three preceding novels. Yet there is significant joy in rereading, where the text allows it.
For instance, although I have little sympathy with the fans of Charles Dickens in terms of his work specifically, nevertheless I can see many avenues for rereadability apart from the things we are expected to analyse to death in english classes. His novels don't come from a time we know, the english dialects of many of his readers is now just far enough diverged from his that he has intriguing puzzles to sort out just on the score of idiom alone. It isn't necessary to track these things down, or look up the weirdities of victorian and edwardian london for that matter. But many diehard fans do, and even I have enjoyed the thick tomes written up on aspects of "Dickens' london." This sort of rereadability need not reside only in books for adults of varying levels of ponderousness. I still reread Lewis Carroll's Alice books on occasion for the puns and the mathematical oddities that jump out on reacquaintance. They are an unusual window on Carroll's time in their own right, and a great companion book that uses them for that purpose is David Day's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Decoded.
And that's just fiction. Then there are the non-fiction books with especially wonderful bits, which for my part I still collect in commonplace books and use for essay fuel. There are also the frustrating bits that I worry at until they finally make some sort of sense. In fact, here are a couple of examples from page 105 of John Romer's The Great Pyramid, in the 2007 awkwardly sized edition by Cambridge University Press.
[The limestone of the Great Pyramid is]... a bright white limestone prettily banded on occasion with 50 million year old fossils from a vanished ocean. Like all Egyptian limestones, when it is first split from its matrix it has a texture like human skin, is warm to the touch and so soft that you may mark it with your fingernail as if it were schoolroom chalk. But this freshly opened stone soon dries a little in the desert air and shrinks and hardens, making it sharper- edged, lighter and less creamy, and more brittle and far more resistant to scratches.
Until quite recently, Egyptian quarrymen worked and used this limestone in similar if more modest ways to their ancient ancestors. They know the earthy, slightly salty smell that it obtains when it is first cleaved from the living rock, and they un- derstood the grain within the stone, that horizontal stratification obtained when it had been laid down at the bottom of a prehistoric sea, and they exploited the stone’s tendency to cleave with that grain or at right angles to it, so that they could quarry quickly and conveniently into seemingly impenetrable cliffs.
In this case, the rereadable nature of the quotes is vested in their aesthetic quality, their invocation of nearly all the senses, and the way they invoke the skilled work of ordinary people. Your mileage may vary on this sort of thing of course, de gustibus non est disputandum – tastes are not to be argued over. Still, I suspect a person who reads a variety of books, let alone articles and short stories, would be hard-pressed not to find something they would read again. After all, video game players are known to replay well-written games, the modern-day incarnation of "choose your own adventure books." Since reading is difficult to render into a passive activity, it is also difficult to render the thing read into something a person is unable to care about, even if only just enough to declare how disgusted they are with it and determine never to reread the miscreant item or its closely relations.