As promised, a second chapter on rereading great books. I’m going to start with the people who think I still look youngish. Why not? Angela Mende, the pen-to-paper correspondent I mentioned a few weeks ago, opens her letter, “As you have an almost 11-year-old and your photograph shows a relatively young man, I hope you are yet of a generation still able to read running writing.” I am, and the photograph of me here is a bit historic. Angela singles out two books she read in her late teens and reread some decades later: Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and George Eliot’s Middlemarch, “that greatest of English novels”. Both writers reveal “the absolute range of humanity”. David Clark also opens with a vintage-comparing observation: “There are valid reasons to reread significant books now that I have a few years of maturity on me.” He devoured English literature at school but now outs the well-known writers who sleep on his shelves: Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Karl Marx. Ploughing through such works “does not enthral me … even though a reading would refresh and deepen my knowledge”.
When it comes to uplifting comparisons, David Hawkes does even better. He enjoys these pages — “I am always surprised at how many fine scribblers delight and challenge me each week” — despite the fact that “I barrack for the other side”. As a Sydneysider, I’m going to assume he means a Melbourne AFL club. David says Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the short novel that won Papa a Nobel Prize, is the book that surfaces when he thinks of rereading. Hemingway takes us to the Australian World War I novel I hinted at last week: Frederic Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune. It’s one of my favourites, but why listen to me when we can tap Hemingway, who called it “the finest and noblest book of men in war”. Peter Gifford drily notes, “Even bullshit artists like Hemingway can get it right occasionally …” Peter first read the book in his 20s, has reread it often and likes it “more and more each time”. “The fact Manning was a gentleman and an Australian is probably significant. It is hard to see how an equivalent Englishman could have written similarly, given the strictures of class …” John Coleman salutes another war novel, CS Forester’s Brown on Resolution, but wonders, “Was the reading better the second time around? Only marginally. It’s like good wine: how can you improve on it?”
Speaking of Australian authors, Tony London adds Randolph Stow’s The Merry-GoRound in the Sea to his list, along with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Penny Sutherland also names Mick Stow, as he was known. “I couldn’t go past the poetry of Randolph Stow, from the first to the last. He gave us permission to love our country and explore its complexities, all done with extraordinary choice of words, ideas and associations. Often with humour. Always with intense feeling. And, yes, his novels all reward rereading too.” Iain Raphael considers Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book a “must” for rereading, along with Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper. And, “for some perverse reason”, he is rereading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.
Lorne Kuehn made contact from Christchurch (so I’ll avoid sporting analogies). He reread fiction classics until a career in science put that on hold, “except for all titles by gem authors such as Evelyn Waugh, William Golding, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan”. His favourite novel is McEwan’s Solar, “which skewers the modern scientific career”. In the way we all like stories that poke fun at our professions, I am a fan of Waugh’s Scoop, which Eric Marsh names as one of six novels he recalls rereading. First, though, Eric notes he doesn’t often reread novels, except those of PG Wodehouse, “which is like relaxing in a hot bath”. The five others to make the cut are JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Fowles’s The Magus and George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I haven’t read the Higgins, and Brian Easton picks two more that have eluded me: The Glass of Time and The Meaning of Night by English writer Michael Cox. Eddie Tikoft is in my corner on Moby-Dick, using the contradictory swinging lamp from chapter nine to illuminate what makes a good novel: “The metaphor seems to work not only for the relationship between the conscience and the eternal soul, but between a good book and the temporal soul.” Carolyn Lang holds up The Catcher in the Rye as one that goes backwards on rereading. As a teenager she found it inspiring; years later she thought it irritating. “I was the mother of teenagers at the time and this was just one more teenage voice too many.” But Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina “never ceases to feel fresh and always seems to resonate with a different part of me as I go through life’s changes”. Geraldine Wooller’s recent reacquaintance with Doris Lessing and Edna O’Brien had an interesting result: “Lessing’s tone now sometimes strikes me as priggish while O’Brien still (in her 80s) delivers beautiful prose, authentic sex and abandonment.” Lisa Roche selects a dark novel, John McGahern’s The Pornographer, which she’s reread from her 20s to her 50s and “it gets better with each read”. She also suggests Frank O’Connor’s An Only Child, which she has reread since the age of 10.
When it comes to funny books, Diane Beckingham — “I love to be made to laugh aloud” — reckons Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm never fails. She also goes for Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves and — “I won’t part with my copy” — Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child. Val Myers makes a similar claim on The Gadfly, by Irish writer Ethel Voynich: “I read it in 1963 and have kept it ever since as it left me with a feeling that if I got rid of this book I would regret it.” Barbara Bunting is another Lucky Jim fan — “If I want a real belly laugh” — and also picks, less for the jokes, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Geoff Long declares Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion his all-time favourite, “much better than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.
Dianna Stevenson outdoes Australian voters by promptly electing one book, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. She quotes a passage that starts “Whereas the truth is that fullness of soul can sometimes …” and concludes: “Each time I read this, it almost makes me weak in the knees.” Merv Bonnell is another decisive voter, though he’s affected elsewhere. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto “is a fantastic book … the ending is so unexpected it cuts your heart out”. Elizabeth Blanche says that at 70 she hasn’t read fiction for years (“nonfiction has all the ingredients a reader could wish for”) but does include Madame Bovary among her favourite novels, along with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Paul Mealing prefers nonfiction too, but remembers two novels he read “cover to cover” while at school, Albert Camus’s The Plague, which he has reread since, and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Alwyn Gidley also remembers a school book, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, being reread now to help a high school granddaughter. “Rereading it, I am fascinated by the influence of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft … the birth of the gothic horror genre seems even more remarkable.” Asa Smith is in similar terrain, rereading SE Hinton’s The Outsiders, which her daughter is studying. She plans to read all the books her children read at school, not to help with homework “but so that I can talk to them about their reading highs and lows”. That’s a beautiful plan.
I’ll finish with two readers who name the novel that most days is my favourite, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Brian Tuana took a long time to read it, not because he didn’t want to but due to other commitments. Today he thinks of the copy that waited patiently on the shelf as “like a friend who has never let me down”. Chris Bond says Crime and Punishment is “the one book that in my entire life may have been equalled, but has never been surpassed”. It is “such a mighty work of literature, so beautifully strange and strangely beautiful”. Thanks to everyone for the intelligence and fun of the past two weeks.