Monday, April 24, 2006

LBC on short novels and re-reading

Interesting couple of posts over at the LitBlog Co-Op, ostensibly as part of the discussion around Sheila Heti's Ticknor.

In the first one, Sam Jones praises the joys of re-reading:
In response to my remark about re-reading [previous LBC nominee] Maps for Lost Lovers, commenter Mike kindly reminded me that not only did some people not re-read novels, they couldn't understand why anyone else would. I thought of this recently because there's a passage from Ticknor I've read with delight a dozen times already, and probably will read a dozen more.
As well as the pleasures of short novels:
One of the things I love about a short novel—Ticknor is 188 pages, around 40,000 words—is that it's possible to hold the entire book in your mind, and remember and revisit passages like this when you've finished the book. In a longer novel, it seems to me, one pleasure is quickly replaced by the next, and you (or at least I) quickly forget little touches [...] Long novels work by accumulation of detail; short novels by subtraction. I don't think it's a stretch to say that short novels can achieve a kind of perfection that long novels cannot. It's probably no accident that the book that repeatedly comes up on surveys as the greatest American novel, The Great Gatsby, is only 50,000 words long.
Mark Sarvas picks up the thread, again extolling the virtues of re-reading, in part by recounting a story in which he'd convinced a co-worker to re-read a favorite book, which co-worker had previously wondered why anyone would "waste time" "reading something he'd already read".

My ambition is to re-read many books in the coming months and years. And not necessarily "favorites" but also some of those books that perhaps I read at too young an age, books that clearly had more to offer than I actually got out of them at the time. Or, books that, although bewildering, nevertheless drew me in and kept me reading. Naturally, this ambition is consistently undercut by the ongoing effort to read books that are new to me. So, as it is, I can unfortunately count the number of novels I've re-read in short order--it's surely fewer than ten. However, in recent months I have managed to re-read a few (Delillo's White Noise, Banville's The Book of Evidence, and Nabokov's Despair); it's interesting to discover how little of the books actually remain in memory over time--stray images, phrases (this is especially true, no doubt, if one has not written about the book in question--hence, perhaps, the urge to blog). So a re-reading is a re-discovery, a recognition.

On the matter of length, I have no preference and see no reason for one. Certainly the choice to read a given book at a given time is affected by length--I had by comparison relatively little time to read recently, so short novels and short stories suited me just fine. But I have many long-ass books awaiting my attention, and I looked forward to tackling some of them. Indeed, by coincidence, before reading these LBC posts, I had a post in mind about how, after recently reading several short novels and collections of short stories, it's nice to settle into a prodigiously long one (Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers, about which more soon, I hope).


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