Published Jun 27, 2009 From the magazine issue dated Jul 13, 2009
Above the table on which I’m now writing hangs an old framed print showing Mr. Pickwick’s street-smart servant, Sam Weller, prophetically pointing out to his chubby little master—in tights, gaiters, and spectacles—a vast, teeming mob of tiny figures: the characters Charles Dickens was to create in the novels to come after The Pickwick Papers. I still haven’t identified all of them, but I see Fagin and the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist, Little Nell and her grandfather from The Old Curiosity Shop, the sanctimonious Mr. Pecksniff from Martin Chuzzlewit, the choleric Major Bagstock from Dombey and Son, and Bob Cratchit from A Christmas Carol carrying Tiny Tim. Ah, and that must be the mad old dealer in secondhand clothes from DavidCopperfield. His name, in what appears to be an odd self-tribute, is Charley—Dickens names another madman in that same novel Mr. Dick—but I remember him best, as you will if you’ve read the book, for his greeting to young David: “Oh, my eyes and limbs, what do you want? Oh, my lungs and liver, what do you want? Oh, goroo, goroo!” It’s because I can’t get enough of characters like these that half my Dickens paperbacks now have their covers held on with duct tape.
The other day I went to the bookstore and laid in a couple of newly published volumes I’ve been eager to read—Samuel Beckett’s letters and Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever—but I’ll be spending most of this summer revisiting all of Dickens yet again. (So far I’ve gone through Chuzzlewit, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and Little Dorrit; next up, Oliver Twist.) This time I’ve got an excuse—I’m teaching a Dickens course in the fall—but I’ve never considered that I needed one. Most of the “joys of rereading” pieces you come across tuck in an obligatory apology for indulging in the “childish” pleasure—this is a bad thing?—of “obsessive” repetition. You often hear a distinction made between strictly literary rereading, the kind of close study scholars and writers undertake, and the “comfort” reading relegated to the beach, the bathroom, and the bedroom. But is there really such a sharp line between the respectably energizing and the shamefully narcotizing? I’d never put Dracula on a syllabus, or read myself to sleep with Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable. (Though some people might find it a sovereign cure for insomnia.) Still, I suspect that the most widely reread writers in English have been Dickens, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen—hardly a month goes by without my revisiting one of them—who combine the sleepy-time comforts of story and character with all the challenge and complexity, the inexhaustible newness, that anyone could ask for. I’ve taught them all in the classroom, while in the bedroom their books have slipped from my hands as their stories shaded into my dreams.
In a recent New York Times op-ed in defense of rereading, Verlyn Klinkenborg lists some of his old favorites—he turns out to be a Dickens hound too—and concludes: “This is not a canon. This is a refuge.” And in an even more recent New Yorker piece, Roger Angell refers to “a sweet dab of guilt attached to rereading. We really should be into something new, for we need to know all about credit-default swaps and Darwin and steroids and the rest, but not just now, please.” Most of us, though, have our own musical canon—or why do they sell so many iPods?—and no one feels guilty about listening to, say, Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” just once in a lifetime. My own list of perennial rereads ranges from Jim Bouton’s Ball Four and Galen Rowell’s In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods—about a K2 expedition that entertainingly falls apart over the climbing team’s acrimonies—to John Dean’s Watergate memoir Blind Ambition and Brendan Gill’s magazine memoir Here at the New Yorker, to Humphrey House’s biography of Ezra Pound, A Serious Character, and Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. This is beyond a refuge. It’s a world, with continent after continent, each as densely populated with heroes, villains, and oddballs as that Dickens print on my wall. They give me a circle of friends and acquaintances far wider, and in some cases far deeper, than I—or anyone—could have in what we’re pleased to call the real world.
In W. H. Auden’s essay “The Guilty Vicarage”—collected in The Dyer’s Hand, which I’ve kept on my night table for years—he analyzes his self-confessed “addiction” to whodunits: “I suspect that the typical reader of detective stories is, like myself, a person who suffers from a sense of sin.” I share Auden’s fondness for Sherlock Holmes and G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, but his reading habits could hardly be more different from mine. “I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, and have no wish to read it again. If, as sometimes happens, I start reading one and find after a few pages that I have read it before, I cannot go on.” I’ve reread all the Sherlock Holmes stories, and many of the Father Browns, more times than I could count, and I seldom have fewer than a half dozen of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries there on the night table next to The Dyer’s Hand. In fact, I never travel overnight without one or two in my bag. And, as far as I can tell, without a sense of sin.
Lovers of these stories—can we not call them addicts?—often note that part of their appeal lies in their comfortingly familiar atmospheres: Holmes and Watson’s rooms on Baker Street, with the “gasogene” (whatever that is) and the Persian slipper filled with pipe tobacco, or Wolfe’s townhouse on West 35th, with its kitchen on the first floor and its plant rooms on the roof. But the real draw is the people: the arrogantly rational Holmes (whose impenetrable reserve compensates for God knows what); the stolid yet insecure Watson; the petulant, sedentary, impossibly erudite Wolfe—a fellow rereader, whose office is lined with favorite books—and his Watson, the hyperkinetic, never-insecure Archie Goodwin, wielder of one of the most engaging first-person narrative voices in all of fiction. And don’t forget the villains. Not just the recurring archenemies—Dr. Moriarty and Arnold Zeck (Wolfe’s Moriarty)—but such wonderfully nasty specimens as the fraudulent “solar priest” exposed by Father Brown in The Eye of Apollo, or the drab middle-aged lady in Stout’s A Right to Die who turns out to be a murderous racist. I’ve just spoiled two endings, by the way, but they were spoiled for me years ago without diminishing my pleasure a bit.
In the books I reread over and over, I always come back for the people, and often simply for their voices. I return to Ball Four just to hear Joe Schultz, manager of the hapless Seattle Pilots, tell his players to “pound that ol’ Budweiser.” Or to Peter Golenbock’s Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949–1964, to hear the team’s former third baseman Clete Boyer lamenting his eroded skills. “And it’s a shame,” he tells Golenbock. “Like old ballplayers—like myself. I should quit now. But s–t, I have to go back to Japan for the money. I hate to be embarrassed like that, to just hang on, hang on for the money.” Or to Donald Honig’s Baseball When the Grass Was Real, to hear the long-retired pitcher Wes Ferrell reminisce: “But I’ve still got those memories. I played against a lot of great stars. You name ’em. Ruth, Gehrig, Greenberg, Simmons, Foxx, Grove, DiMaggio, Cochrane, Feller. I saw them all. And they saw me. You bet they did.” Honig’s book also has a brilliantly told Ernest Hemingway anecdote, from Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Famer Billy Herman. When the team was training in Havana in the 1940s, Hemingway, who “took a lot of pride in all this manly stuff,” invited some players to his house. Late in the evening he cajoled pitcher Hugh Casey into a “friendly” boxing match, sucker-punched him, kicked him “in the balls,” then challenged him to a duel: ” ‘We’ll use swords, pistols, whatever you want. You pick it.’ And he’s dead serious about it …c The next day Hemingway’s wife brought him down to the ball park. You never saw a man so embarrassed, so ashamed. He apologized to everybody. ‘Don’t know what got into me,’ he said. Well, I can tell you what got into him. About a quart.”
I also reread Hemingway’s own stories, to hear his characters’ voices again—he’s got an even better ear than Billy Herman. There’s the narrator of “After the Storm,” who’s the first to come upon a sunken ocean liner, but can’t get down there to loot it. “Well, the Greeks got it all. They must have come fast all right. They picked her clean. First there was the birds, then me, then the Greeks, and even the birds got more out of her than I did.” And “the girl” in “Hills Like White Elephants,” whose lover is pestering her to get an abortion. “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” (That’s seven “please”s. Who says less is more?) But my favorite is the lumber-town prostitute in “The Light of the World,” with her addled aria about a once famous prizefighter. “Did I know him? Did I know him? Did I love him? You ask me that? I knew him like you know nobody in the world and I loved him like you love God. He was the greatest, finest, whitest, most beautiful man that ever lived, Steve Ketchel, and his own father shot him down like a dog.” In all of short fiction, she has only one serious rival for my affections: the spinster postmistress in Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” “Papa-Daddy woke up with this horrible yell and right there without moving an inch he tried to turn Uncle Rondo against me …c All the time he was just lying there swinging as pretty as you please and looping out his beard, and poor Uncle Rondo was pleading with him to slow down the hammock, it was making him as dizzy as a witch to watch it. But that’s what Papa-Daddy likes about a hammock. So Uncle Rondo was too busy to get turned against me for the time being. He’s mama’s only brother and is a good case of a one-track mind. Ask anybody. A certified pharmacist.” If you’ve got Talking Heads on your iPod, why would you want to hear this loony music only once in your life?
And it’s not just the characters who’ve become my companions—it’s also the writers themselves. Some of them, I feel, I would never have wanted to deal with in person, but on the page, they’re some of my favorite people to hang out with. In Strong Opinions, a collection of interviews and letters to editors, the arch-mandarin Vladimir Nabokov sets me straight again and again about Conrad (“I cannot abide [his] souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist clichés”), Freud (“Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts”), and “the corny Philistine fad of flaunting four-letter words.” I never weary of his reply when asked about his “position in the world of letters”: “Jolly good view from up here.” And in The Sixties, the last of the posthumously published journals by Nabokov’s friend (and sometime enemy) Edmund Wilson, I get to keep company with the august curmudgeon when he goes to see Yellow Submarine—”Amusing but almost two hours of animated cartoon is perhaps a little too much”—and a performance at a Paris music hall. “I… sat through the first act of a show that … consisted of American-type entertainment of the coarsest and most raucous kind: a jazz orchestra; everybody doing the twist; women torch singers, tremendously applauded, who … would sing with the microphone in the right hand, like a piece of garden hose.” Still, huff as he did, even in his last years Wilson was always game to check out something new. Not—ahem—like some of us.
It might be that the shame attached to rereading has less to do with all the new books you feel you ought to be encountering than with what your choice of old books reveals. In my case, I can see a strong tendency toward nostalgia (for the New York Yankees of my childhood; for the sum-mer of 1973, when I watched the Watergate hearings on television) and toward Anglophilia—which appears to be my favored form of multiculturalism. I can’t help but notice the glaring whiteness of all my most-reread authors; it might be righteous to pretend otherwise, but it is what it is: as John-son said, “No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures.” And for a heterosexual, I seem to have quite a taste for all-male subcultures (baseball, mountaineering), mostly male adventures (The Lord of the Rings, Moby-Dick, the Watergate saga), male solitaries (John-son, Philip Larkin, Father Brown), and male couples (Holmes and Watson, Jeeves and Bertie, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, Mr. Pickwick and Sam, Frodo and his Sam). Then again, maybe having a taste for Hemingway says it all. I suppose I could go on to look at why I’m always rereading Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, or Tom Piazza’s True Adventures With the King of Bluegrass, or Paul Fussell’s Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays, or certain stories by Cheever, Bruce Jay Friedman, Flannery O’Connor, James Thurber, and Ring Lardner. Not to mention Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, his eminently rereadable rereading of some of the all-time great rereads. The simple answer is that they give me joy. They fill me with the voices of people I know, thousands of them—many times the number in that old Dickens print—the real and the imagined, the living and the dead. Heaven may be like this eventually, but why wait around when it’s right here, right now?