Books We Cannot Read Only Once

The fine fellows over at SfSignal ask the following question:

There are books we read once. There are books we re-read. And then there are the books that we wear out our copy because we devour it again and again. The books we have to buy a copy for ourselves immediately upon lending out our copy because we’re sure we will never see it again–or just want to make sure we have it on hand. What are some of these genre books for you? Why do you go back to them again and again?

My answer:

The primary purpose of nonfiction books is either to give us facts, give us insights based on facts, or to persuade or urge us into some course of action based on that insight. But the primary purpose of fiction is to slake the thirst we have for the magical waters which flow from worlds beyond the dry and bitter world of facts, to drink, to bathe, to be cleansed, to be refreshed, and to emerge shining from the baptism of the imagination to return to the dry wasteland of the factual world washed and prepared for battle. Science fiction and Fantasy form the deeper waters which carry us farther from the shore of this wasteland, and therefore provide deeper springs from which, through the imagination, to irrigate it.

Hence, those books which call a reader again and again to its wellsprings must be those which have particular power to restore what the factual world does not give him. By seeing what books never lose the power to refresh him, you can see what he most craves and yet which the world most fails to provide him.

Science Fiction is a refreshing drink when you look around at the world, and you see some bad and ancient institution, and you think: that will never change. It is also a shocking splash of cold water in the face when you look at some good we take for granted and think: that will never change. So books worth multiple reads include NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR by George Orwell if you are taking your unchanging liberties for granted; also and include LAST AND FIRST MEN by Olaf Stapledon or SHADOW OF THE TORTURER by Gene Wolfe if you are tired of the view of history from the parochial view of ‘now’ and want to see the vast sweeps of time as if from a skyscraper, and all our present concerns no bigger than ants.

Since each time Mr. Wolfe adds another book to his duodecology of the Solar Cycle I reread the previous volumes, I suspect that I have reread his work more often than any other author’s, with the exception of Tolkien.

Gene Wolfe also writes detective stories where the detective never actually tells anyone the solution of the crime, something of a puzzle-box story where one must be alert for clues. This would make multiple rereading of his work a clear necessity for that reason alone, even if there were not many reasons to reread.

Less well known books which offer the refreshment of seeing the heroism too often absent in real life, and which are so well crafted and lyrical in their ironic wit include nearly anything by Jack Vance. I particularly have reread, and often, his ‘Planet of Tschai ‘ books (CITY OF THE CHASCH, SERVANTS OF THE WANKH, THE DIRDIR, THE PNUME ) and his ‘Demon Princes’ series (THE STAR KING, THE KILLING MACHINE, THE PALACE OF LOVE, THE FACE, THE BOOK OF DREAMS).

More famous and frankly more poorly written novels that I have reread for refreshment come upon me when the smallness and cowardice of my fellows (or my own) threaten to choke me with disgust. Many people turn to Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories when they seek the stark romance of a world where fate hangs on the edge of a sword, but these are slightly too newfangled for my taste: I prefer the crude but colorful pulp of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the first three books of his Barsoom series, PRINCESS OF MARS, GODS OF MARS and WARLORD OF MARS.

The stern sense of civic patriotism which rings through every line of Robert Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS is one I also seek out when the wasteland of men without honor overwhelms me. It is little more than a lecture disguised as a novel, but it is a good lecture.
Fantasy is refreshing precisely for the opposite reason. The wasteland at such times seems too full of machinery and modernism and the endless rush of little men pursuing little fortunes in little ventures, and the soul aches for a touch of magic, the sense that there are golden cities far beyond the horizon, and fields in some distant and forgotten mountain glen where fauns leap and dance and fairies hold revels, or darkest ocean depth which no sunlight touches, where the monsters waiting Ragnarök stir in uneasy sleep. We want to see true love, and the sick healed by the touch of a king, and the dead raised, and all the things we do not see in the evening news.

The greatest of these fantasies, and most worthy of rereading (and more often by me reread) are THE LORD OF THE RINGS by Professor Tolkien, and THE WORM OUROBOROS by E.R. Eddison. These are both re-readable for the opposite reason: Tolkien’s command of the language is such that he can draw out the strange and fantastic figures of Northern myth as if into the clear sunlight of Earth, so that we can touch and handle marvels; and Eddison’s command of the language is such that he can elevate the earthly things or love and war as if to a high unvisited mountain storm-fraught with strange reports, and against the setting sun allow us glimpse the figures on the peak where no mortals tread, and we see their vast shadows against the intervening clouds. And, yes, Eddison’s book is the one where I possess three copies, so that I might lend one out and not regret the loss.

The great poem, the greatest in the English tongue, of PARADISE LOST by Milton is the garden to which I escape when I flee from mere pettiness, mere ugliness, for he makes even the wretched devils speak with such power and grandiloquence that even their darkness is tinged with gold. That book I reread whenever I want to be among the old friends who know my old friends, all the figures from classical antiquity. But lest I seem to rarified in my taste, let me rush to assure one and all that the far inferior work DREAM QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH by pulp writer H.P. Lovecraft is perhaps the most often reread book in my collection, since it was the first I bought back in childhood, and the spell of enduring strangeness has never let go its grip.

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