Monday, November 29, 2004

Books We Read More Than Once

Hugh has an interesting topic on his blog today. It’s about which books one reads more than once.

He’s specifically addressing modern novels, though he does toss in his own non-fiction re-read list. Coincidentally, Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples, and Robert Massie’s Dreadnought are also on my own non-fiction re-reading list. As are William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and Collapse of the Third Republic (his lesser known but just as excellent narrative history of France from the late nineteenth century through its collapse in WW II). Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence is another. I could go on quite a bit about non-fiction I re-read, but that's not really the main point, so I'll leave it there.

Then we come to modern novel re-reading list, and again Hugh and I share a fondness for a couple things. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and C. S. Lewis' Great Divorce are mentioned (though I don’t recall re-reading that specific Lewis work, I pull out various works from Lewis for re-reading somewhat frequently). Hugh also mentions "other Inklings work." I wonder if he's ever read anything by Charles Williams. His books are all out-of-print as far as I know, but I once tracked some down in the public library archives when I lived in Peoria, Illinois (All Hallows Eve, and Place of the Lion). Really good stuff. Hard to put someone on a re-reading list when you can't find his books though. (Great googily moogily! A quick search shows me they're back in print! Ain't Amazon a grand thing!)

But I was most enthused to see that Hugh is as big a fan of Colleen McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series (starting with The First Man in Rome, and ending with The October Horse). This is by far the best historical fiction I have ever read - and she sustains its quality through six thick volumes. Roman history has always been a bit of a hobby for me, and McCullough truly did her homework. Every time I thought she had some specific detail wrong, and went to research it, McCullough’s version was proven at very least plausible, and more often simply true. Oddly enough I just started re-reading the McCullough series last week.

Other historical fiction that has truly captured me that way includes Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and War and Remembrance, and James Clavell’s Shogun, and Tai-Pan (Gai-Jin wasn’t as good, but still better than most other historical fiction out there). And I might as well toss in an honorble mention to Leon Uris for Trinity. All of those are very worth reading and re-reading. In fact, just thinking about it makes me want to go dig around in my storage room to see if I can find my Wouk or Clavell books.

Another modern novel I consider worth re-reading is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It was a book I first read the summer after my freshman year in college. I’ve re-read it a couple of times since then. Grapes of Wrath was good, but never really grabbed me as deeply or personally as East of Eden.

Kurt Vonnegut is another author worth re-reading, though I don’t think all of his books hold up as well as others. The ones I would re-read are Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle, Sirens of Titan (which seems to anticipate the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - another fun re-read), and Bluebeard. Bluebeard is the oddest of the bunch, written later in Vonnegut’s life. I had burnt out on Vonnegut during a phase in college where I read pretty much everything he wrote through the 70’s. Eventually I was overcome by Vonnegut’s sense of existential ennui. It became depressing reading him. And then I came across Bluebeard and was stunned to discover a Vonnegut book in which the prevailing message, intertwined with a sly wink through another seemingly existential novel, was hope. Reading Bluebeard actually made the earlier Vonnegut works bearable again, knowing that they did not in fact lead inevitably to despair.

Anyway, that’s my list, tossed off the top of my head. I’d enjoy seeing this meme kick off a number of similar posts from other bloggers.


Blogger Drew said...

I started "Place of the Lion" once, but had to return it to the library before I had the chance to get very far. I kept meaning to get back to it, and finally this summer I returned to the library to grab a stack of Charles Williams novels only to find all of them (and they had a lot) were gone. I should have checked to see if they were removed from circulation or had been checked out. But I couldn't imagine that all of them were checked out at once.

Good to know that they're back in print. I may have to purchase some.

And about Vonnegut, I'm in full agreement. The three you mention are probably the only ones I've found worth rereading. "Breakfast of Champions" is terrible--only worth noting because Rabo Karabekian appears at the end of it. (I liked "Bluebeard" as well.) Though I have a notion to reread some of his 80s novels, "Galapagos" and "Deadeye Dick" in particular. I seem to recall enjoying "Deadeye Dick" quite a bit.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Doug said...


Charles Williams is definitely a challenging, though rewarding, read. His novels are full of theological and philisophical symbolism. And where he tries to connect with modern culture, it's the culture of England in the interwar period.

Glad to see another Vonnegut fan. I think us righties are supposed to disdain him on principal or something, but I already got over that in my love of Steinbeck, so I'm immune from the sneers.

8:24 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

Hey, thanks for adding me to your blogroll. I'd been meaning to add yours to mine for some time now, and this prompted me to go ahead and do it.


11:00 PM  

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