Books I Am Always (Re-)Reading

Trudging through a very long book the other night–never mind the title, at least now anyway–it occurred to me that I’d rather be reading from 2666; that, at that particular moment, I’d rather re-read from “The Part About the Crimes.” I don’t know if it was the effete dullness of the first volume that made me want to pick up Bolaño’s epic, perhaps trying to zap some life into my waning eyeballs; perhaps it was just the sense that I was wasting my time with the merely good, which, after all, is mediocrity when set against genius (yes, these are subjective terms).

Anyway, I didn’t have to go looking for 2666 — I have a copy (yes, I have two) right there jammed into my nightstand, along with a few other books that I realize that I’m always reading. Furthermore, I’m always reading these books in the most discontinuous, stochastic fashion, often picking them up at random and thumbing through them. I think I use these books to clear my literary palate, to get a bad (or worse, boring) taste out of my brain, to inspire me, to suggest another book. Some of these books, like 2666 are big, fat volumes, volumes that I set close at hand in the hopes of rereading in full. Sometimes I’ve met this goal; in the case of Moby-Dick, I’ve read the book through at least three times now, and yet never tire of it. I’m always picking it up again and again, sometimes to find Elijah’s rant or to dip into Ahab’s mad monologue or perhaps just to hear Stubb comment on the proper preparation of shark steaks. Of a piece with those big novels is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I turn to repeatedly, reading over a riff or two at a time, perhaps still trying to figure out the ending, or some clue of the ending, perhaps trying to figure out why Hal can’t speak (you know, beyond like, a a metaphorical level).

There’s also Blood Meridian.

A book I always keep proximal is D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, which, if this were a dictatorship under Biblioklept might replace the Constitution (jaykay, Tea Partiers!). Tellingly, I’ve never managed to finish one of Lawrence’s novels (I even struggle through his much-anthologized piece, “The Rocking Horse Winner”), but I consider his dissertations on Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville indispensable (and creative in their own right). I guess I just like lit crit; Harold Bloom’s too-huge volume The Western Canon is a book I return to again and again. Sometimes I find myself throwing it to the ground, quite literally (if I’ve enjoyed a drink or two, that is), in disgust. Bloom’s battle with “The School of Resentment” can be maddening, especially when he’s so up front about essentially making Shakespeare God. Still, Shakespeare doesn’t seem like a bad God to have.

I should point out that I’ve made no attempt to read The Western Canon the whole way through; in fact, I’ve never made a single attempt to read it systematically. I just sort of pick it up, thumb through it, occasionally plumb the index. There are several books that I am always rereading in this category: Books That I Am Always Reading and Yet Have Never Finished. Foremost among these is Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, a book that I probably, at this point, have read in full, but never fully through. Its aphorisms beg to be read discontinuously; I think Nietzsche wet-dreamed about his fragmentary works being literally fragmented and then later found, read piecemeal against some newer, more garish culture. Or perhaps that’s just my metaphorical wet dream.

Other Books That I Am Always Reading and Yet Have Never Finished — The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman stands out, as does Finnegans Wake. Sterne’s book is such an oddity: I remember picking it up in a stack of books to be shelved at my college library, thumbing through it, bewildered, thinking that it must be contemporary with John Barth. A bit of research left me even more perplexed. Like Tristram, who can’t seem to finish his story, I can’t seem to actually finish it, but I’m okay with picking it up again and again. Similarly, Finnegans Wake strikes me as an unfinished-unfinishable volume (I do not mean this literally; I know that Joyce “finished” the book as an infinite strange loop, just as I know that the book can be read). I have an audio recording of Finnegans Wake that I like to listen to occasionally (especially while driving), as well as William York Tindall’s  guide (which is fun), but I’d rather just sort of grab the thing at random and read a page or two. I know, in an intellectual sense, that is, that I could easily read the book in a calendar year by committing to three pages a day (plus a few pages of Tindall), but I don’t think that I can read books in an intellectual sense. I think, at the risk of sounding unbearably corny, that books have to call to their readers in an emotional and perhaps even spiritual sense. Otherwise, what’s the point?

19 thoughts on “Books I Am Always (Re-)Reading”

  1. I have the same problem with Rousseau’s ‘The Social Contract’. It’s such a small book and it’s actually quite interesting, but every time I try and read it I always stop half way and cannot seem to finish it. Why??? I haven’t picked up Harold Bloom’s ‘The Western Canon’ but I think I’d like to check it out.


    1. I kind of quit looking at my (apparent) inability to finish some of these volumes as a “problem” a few years ago. I know that I could finish them if I wanted to, but I hate *making* myself finish a book, especially if it’s a book that I might not be unequipped to finish.

      Also, I never finished The Social Contract either.


  2. Great post. I’ve been reading 2666 and Blood Meridian for quite a while-years in fact. Tristram Shandy is one of my favorites. I’ve read it twice and I find incredibly unique. It really makes one think about the “newness” of the postmodern.


    1. Yeah, Sterne sort of did postmodernism before Modernism. . .

      Also, forgot to add to this post:
      Read but Always Rereading: Denis Johnson’s Jesus Son, Raymond Carver’s Cathedral
      Not Finished but Always Reading: Cervantes’ Don Quixote
      And probably a bunch more that I’m not thinking of right now.


  3. I love the image of you listening to Finnegans Wake while driving! Also love Blood Meridian. I just finished it the other day, and immediately thought I will read this again very soon.


  4. Gravity’s Rainbow was my go-to unfinished book for some time. I finally finished it, but I almost wish I hadn’t.


    1. It took me years to finish GR. Years. I’ve probably read the opening 50 pages more than any other book. I listened to a big swath of it on audio a few years ago, which helped me get through it. In the end, it was almost an academic exercise for me, devoid of joy, like a self-imposed chore.


  5. I’m over halfway with Gaddis’s The Recognitions and I keep thinking about how you gave up on it. A friend is about to try to read it and told me his strategy is to think of it as a trilogy of small novels rather than one huge one, possibly even reading books in between the parts. This, I think, is sound. Especially with the help of the Gaddis annotations site you might be able to finish it.


    1. Ben, it’s not the book’s allusiveness that made me abandon it; I think it was just that I kept waiting (and waiting and waiting) for it to be as good as its first chapter. I only have a few 100 pages left in it. Might pick it up again this summer.


  6. There are those I’m always reading because I WANT to RE-READ them. The Dharma Bums, comes to mind. But books I never seem to finish – well, there are several, but the one I have been at the longest…Ulysses. I know, I’m supposed to find it to be one of the best works of literature in the world, a masterpiece, but, I like Joyce’s short stories much better. Ulysses, well, is work.

    There, I said it.

    David W. Berner
    Author, Accidental Lessons


  7. I’ve had this problem with almost every Dickens book I’ve picked up which makes some people recoil in horror. Books I keep going back through off the top of my head are Ask the Dust and Galapagos…


  8. I’m with you on The Western Canon; I’ll never read it cover to cover but I’d guess I have read sixty percent in idle skimming. I read Ulysses weekly, a few lines here, a chapter here; I suspect I am obsessed with it.


    1. Ulysses is a good one to get obsessed with. I was the same way for years until finally finishing it (thanks in no small part to a graduate course). I still pick it up but FW is the one that seems to call more these days (I doubt I’ll ever finish it).

      Also, not really a direct reply to Tony but just a general need to respond to the tenor of some of the comments: half the books on this list I’ve read in full, and several of them more than once. The other half are not books that I abandoned in frustration; they are simply books that, for years now, I’ve been reading.


  9. “Blood Meridian” is always a nice one to return to, but specifically, the ending and the epilogue are parts that sometimes I re-read just because. The image of the judge dancing and then the man in the epilogue with his “two-handled implement” — wow!


    1. Yeah — not sure what that guy is doing — I’m guessing that the two-handled implement is post-hole diggers, perhaps — that the land is being surveyed, fenced-in, that the West is no longer wild perhaps . . . not sure.


  10. I am always and forever returning to The Iliad (Fitzgerald trans.), Pound’s Cantos and The Book of the New Sun, in bits and pieces.

    For years (ten, maybe?) dhalgren was something I contested with in chunks, until it finally clicked with me and I read it through. Now I can go back to it on the regular and admire Delany’s labored sentences without the pressure to finish the damn thing already, and it’s quite enjoyable. I can finally accept that the narrative, such as it was, was never the point.


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