Most re-read books
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
A long time back, you did an AVQ&A on your most rewatched movies of all time. But you’ve never done the same for books. Not counting books read in childhood—when our horizons tend to be pretty small and we love to read the same picture book or junior novel over and over—or books you’ve had to read for classes or professional purposes or whatever, what books have you voluntarily gone back and re-read most often? —Patty
I’ve talked about Richard Adams’ Watership Down—easily my most re-read book of all time, and the only book I habitually read once every two years or so—for a couple of different AVQ&As, so I feel a little silly bringing it up yet again. So we’ll just note that it’s number-one on my list, and my only real comfort read, and move on to number two: Stephen King’s The Stand. For whatever reason, The Stand is my reading equivalent of those movies you catch a minute of on cable and then become mesmerized and wind up watching through to the end. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve casually picked it up to re-read a favorite section—usually the chapter only found in the extended edition, where King riffs out a few short stories about a number of people who were immune to the superflu that wiped out most of the world, but who died in the weeks after the plague for entirely different reasons—and then the next thing I know, I’m on the couch and I’m 150 pages further in. There doesn’t ever seem to be any point in fighting it; that book has its own undertow for me.
I attended a fiction-writing workshop a couple summers ago, and I was horrified one day to find we’d be reading a scene from Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic Dune—and it was being used as an example of bad writing. (Specifically, the gratuitously erratic use of point of view.) As it turned out, my teacher made an airtight case against Herbert. But that didn’t stop me from reading Dune again last year. Or three years before that. Or four years before that, etc. My almost ritualistic rereading of Dune goes back a few decades to when I was 12; I’d seen the posters for David Lynch’s film hanging in the movie theater that year, but I hadn’t yet seen the film when I first bought and consumed the paperback, reissued in 1984 with Kyle MacLachlan, the star of Lynch’s adaptation, on the cover. That was the year after Return Of The Jedi came out, and I was already a veteran Star Wars devotee at that point, having seen all three films in the theater when they were first released (including Star Wars at the ripe old age of 5). To me, Herbert’s novel had enough familiar elements from Star Wars—George Lucas drew inspiration from Dune, particularly in his creation of the desert planet Tatooine and the vaguely Shai Hulud-like Sarlacc—but it was far deeper and richer than Star Wars. As a kid just beginning to venture into mythology, literature, and the tangled wilderness of my own brain, I was hooked. Since then, Dune has become the single book I’ve revisited most in my life. Each rereading of Herbert’s epic takes on some new resonance to me the older I get. (Although that’s never been enough to make me read the sequels more than twice, and don’t even ask me about the posthumous prequels co-written by Herbert’s son, Brian.) Apparently, though, Herbert the elder was a flagrant abuser of the conventions of POV. But I think I can overlook that fault for another 30 years or so. Or at least long enough to get my Dune half-sleeve done.
When it comes to fiction, I could easily fall back on an answer involving something by Douglas Adams or Neil Gaiman, but when I wrack my brain, I realize there’s only one book I’ve read more times than I can begin to count: Vonda McIntyre’s novelization of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. This may reasonably be called one of the geekiest responses ever, but mark my words: If you love the movie and have yet to read all the additional character details and between-the-scenes goings-on that McIntyre included in her take on the film’s events, you really need to check it out. In particular, she details the history and interpersonal relationships of the team behind Project Genesis, transforming them from the faceless scientists of the film into individuals whose deaths at Khan’s hands are legitimately heartbreaking. Swear to God. On the non-fiction front, when you’re talking to a bunch of pop-culture writers, I don’t think you can really weed out books you’ve read for professional purposes, as this is an occupation where you can sometimes re-read your favorites as part of your job. For example, at least once a year, I break out the combo of Live From New York: An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live, by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, and Saturday Night: A Backstage History Of Saturday Night Live, by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. And although I usually do so because I’m looking for a specific quote or anecdote, I invariably end up re-reading them both from start to finish. Sure, one covers more historical ground than the other—Live From New York came out in 2003, while Saturday Night hit shelves in 1986—but they’re both filled with hilarious behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the making of the show that continue to make me laugh no matter how many times I’ve read them. Even now, I’m chuckling at the thought of Michael O’Donoghue’s comments in Saturday Night about dealing with Louise Lasser (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) as a host: “She was a nice woman going through a few problems, but I wanted to force her to eat her goddamn pigtails at gunpoint.”
Because I know the guy a little bit, and because I oversaw a critics’ poll that aped his for a couple of years, and because I’ve never been particularly shy about his influence on me, I get a fair amount of shit from people who can’t stand Robert Christgau. That’s fine; he’s not for everybody, and the ones he’s for can take it a little far—I’ve been there myself. But even though I’ve either disagreed with his musical judgments since the mid-’90s, or simply found them beyond my interests (the feeling is more than mutual), I still go back to his Rock Albums Of The Seventies: A Critical Guide and Christgau’s Record Guide: The ’80s all the time, especially now that they’re up on Christgau’s website in their entirety. For one thing, he’s funny, not least in what remains the single best sentence ever written on Prince (re: Dirty Mind: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home”), and he can really distill a record’s essence into a handful of words. On Carole King’s Wrap Around Joy (Ode, 1974): “The good news is that Carole’s new lyricist used to work with Steely Dan. The bad news is that in Steely Dan he was a vocalist. C.” The letter grades are great punctuation, a cunning rhetorical device as much as simple judgment. I do my best not to write like him (I used to do it automatically), but no one helped me figure out my own voice more.
It’s funny timing that this question was submitted around the same time as the publication of this silly Wall Street Journal piece on whether YA literature is “too dark,” since my most-read book is a young-adult book. Yes, believe it or not, YA literature existed before Twilight. (I know all of you reading this were already aware of that fact, but there are a few people out there who seem to think that YA is this cuckoo trend that came out of nowhere in order to sell vampire-themed meals at Burger King.) Anyway, if I recall, my mother found Celine by Brock Cole at the library and put it in my ever-present and rotating pile of books to check out. Celine isn’t driven by a ton of crazy plot: It’s about a high-school-age artist in Chicago who, like most of us at that age, struggles to find her identity, but isn’t overly tormented by the search. She takes her parents’ absence and her crush on a much-older man much more in stride than a lot of other fictional women twice her age. What I love about the book is that it’s one of a few I ever read about a funny, intelligent female who lives in her own head but isn’t overly defined by her own drama. And the simple, elegant writing holds up: Each time I read it as an adult, I am reminded how great lit written for young adults can be. I freely admit I used the book as inspiration when I published my own YA book a few years ago, as I figured if Celine meant that much to me, maybe the YA world could use another book about a thinky, funny, but not dramz-filled girl. I just finished reading a book last night and was thinking that I need another one to take its place, and now it’s occurring to me that it’s about time to hit ol’ Celine up one more time. I know it won’t disappoint.
I’m a sucker for essayists, and while I love the works of Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris, for example, the collection of essays I keep going back to is Mark Singer’s Somewhere In America: Under The Radar With Chicken Warriors, Left-Wing Patriots, Angry Nudists, And Others, a collection of Singer’s pieces he wrote as “U.S. Journal” columnist for the New Yorker. Singer’s essays reveal something different each read-through, pulling at the threads of Americana, whether it be a small Texas town whose lone newspaper was the high-school paper or talking about cockfighting. Singer’s voice is addictive, and though he strays toward the subjective often, those instances are (usually) subtly done and enhance the writing rather detracting from it, which gives the collection the feel of a travelogue. Singer eloquently—and sometimes hilariously—uses small stories from small corners of the country to tease out a broader picture of the true American identity, those threads that often weave together even as they’re at odds with each other. These broader themes from small stories paint the real America better than so many other travel narratives or Sarah Palin ever could.
In trying to answer this, it occurs to me that I don’t reread books all that often. At least not anymore. For a while, I read Ulysses once a year, and I love that book more than almost any other. But the rereading had as much to do with school as a personal preference. But maybe it’s time to read it again. I used to pore over it with a massive guide called Ulysses Annotated, which explained every last obscure reference, be they literary or some detail obscure to anyone not alive in turn-of-the-century Dublin. I’ve been thinking lately I should just read it and see what that’s like. But, now that I think of it, Joyce’s novella-length story “The Dead” may be the piece of literature I’ve read the most over the years. It’s perfect and true and heartbreaking every time. Oh, and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. I could probably still recite portions of that from memory.
Every few years or so, I like to reread Hey Whipple: Squeeze This!, which is a book about how to be an advertising copywriter. It goes into detail about different kinds of ads—print, TV, radio, etc—and discusses how the writing of those ads can stand out. It also mocks terrible ads from years past, and demonstrates how even though the industry has expanded a thousandfold over the last few years, not much has changed, and there’s still room to make great ads. Yeah, I’m no advertising copywriter or anything (though at one point I wanted to be), but I find that its lessons can be applied to just about any form of writing: Keep the idea as simple as possible, and communicate that idea in the clearest way possible. Don’t be afraid if you find yourself in dangerous, uncomfortable, unexplored areas with your writing—that’s where all good ideas come from. And most importantly, if you’re not feeling creative at the moment (deadlines aside), stop. Do something else. Do lots of things all the time. Great ideas don’t exist in a vacuum.
The most honest answer would be Goodnight Moon, which I’ve read at least once every other night—and up to five times in a row—for the past two years. If partial reads count, then it’s a tie between The Trouser Press Record Guide, third edition, the only book I’ve literally worn out from frequent consulting, and Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights At The Movies. But if we’re talking cover-to-cover, there’s only one possible answer: Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Trilogy. I can’t remember how I first came upon Adams’ books, but I know that his literate wordplay and the sheer elegance of his writing made a profound impact on me, to the extent that I can still recite passages from memory. (All together now: “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun…”) As much as Kael’s criticism, Monty Python’s comedy, or George Carlin’s stand-up, Adams taught me the joys of using language well, that the rhythm of humor is as important as its content, and that there was no shame in being smart, or even on occasion, in flaunting it. I suppose you could say Adams sowed in me the seeds of nerd pride, but more importantly, he showed me the virtue of writing clean, well-structured sentences that can be read over and over for the sheer pleasure of it.
Technically speaking, I’ve probably read collections of comic strips more than any other book. I was in love with the medium as a child and wanted to be a cartoonist despite my complete lack of artistic talent and inability to draw, and I would spend many an evening lying out in an aisle of a local bookstore reading a collection of Peanuts or Bloom County or Calvin & Hobbes, which may have been my favorite comic strip of all time. I wonder if when Bill Watterson retired rather than compromising the strip, he implicitly gave an entire generation of comic-strip fans permission to finally give up on the medium. As for novels, I have probably read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces more than any other book. Toole creates a universe through language and dialogue and local color that I want to get lost in over and over again. It’s a novel of boundless comic richness and surprising depth. They keep threatening to make a movie out of it, but they never have, and I suspect they never will. That’s probably for the best.