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2. My Antonia

Beautiful book, especially the first half. Hadn't read much Cather before, just "Paul's Case" (early sympathetic analysis of narcissism) and "Neighbor Rosicky" which is along the same line as this novel. One of the things I'm proudest of having done is a drawing of a car from a sideways angle, back in high school - it was very difficult to convey three dimensionality. Cather attempts something similar by writing life events sans plot, succeeds far past anything anyone else could have done. To her the ordinary things were exciting, and it's exciting anyone could share that so well.

3. Goodbye Columbus

Second time. I'm not sure how much of the message I caught back in 2004 - this time I was presenting on it, so read it carefully, and it turns out it's aimed at close reading as much as those stories they pick out for 101 textbooks are. Every single detail means something beyond its descriptive function, like in major poems by Bishop and Frost, and a lot of Chekhov's stories. I found it pleasant the first time but it wasn't one of my favorites - this density of oblique content that didn't flag itself as content probably made for a paradoxically distracted effect. Makes me somewhat apprehensive that the rest of Roth is like this too, but I don't think so, since Roth's switch to voice-based writing with Portnoy necessarily took him away from symbols. Not that there aren't any, but this is practically a mosaic. And a good one. I like what he's saying, against the worst, runniest part of America - it's a more impressive debut than I'd known.

4. An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition

Picked near randomly for a class assignment - started a couple longer Bishop books but was turned off by academic-ese and pretentious poet-ese, respectively. Hit and miss critical work, to some extent criticizing Bloom but very much contaminated by him. A large percentage of the Bishop monographs were from c. 1990, so most are written out of the same feminist moment, where the Adrienne Rich-type scorn for Bishop's supposed meek gentility gets replaced by insistence that she's instead sneakily subversive of patriarchy.

This author, Jeredith Merrin, also tries to argue that it's okay that Bishop and Moore are influenced mostly by male figures, for her Herbert and Browne, respectively; Gilbert and Gubar decided women can influence one another in sisterly, unagonistic fashion, and Merrin suggests Browne and Herbert were sisterly too, somehow. She does realize Moore and Bishop are continuators of Romanticism, but insists that it's there their subversion comes in. It's also there that agonism comes in, at least for Bishop, which Merrin might agree with but doesn't address. Moore might be an exception - see below.

5. Poems of Marianne Moore, ed. Schulman

Here's below. I'd mostly avoided Moore: of the poets who are clearly saying something, and something not idiotic, I found her by far the most difficult. In class once I compared reading her to having the shit beaten out of you for ten minutes then handed a thimbleful of really good ice cream. Having made the effort to grasp her in toto I don't think I'll ever feel so beaten up again, but I'm still not sure it was worth it (though I do thing everyone should take a stab at her thirty or so most anthologized pages). She's beyond amazing at times, but those times are usually restricted to passages, even in Marriage, which I read a dozen times and agree is her best. At other times she made me wince all over my body by being way too right about what goes wrong with me: Old Tigers, To a Steamroller. She wrote a whole stack of poems like that, self-castigations where the self's our shared one. So even the really good ice cream can be You Suck-flavored.

I didn't need to make a real effort here - few of my fellow students seem to have, judging by their talk before and after class. Mostly I wanted to see if she's truly a presence in Bishop, and truly she is. She's a ridiculous, exasperating, bizarre figure with something amazing in her. Often Bishop cherry-picks the amazing and carries those bits over into her own pure amazingness parade. But she doesn't get all of it. And it's not at all clear to me who Moore's essential influences are. She's writing her own genre, something that wanders through the sublime sometimes but then back out, across backyards in several worlds alien to me.

6. The Grapes of Wrath

I'd seen the movie a couple times so much was overfamiliar, but the parts that weren't filmed impressed me a lot - the platonic scenes, the ending. Steinbeck had some immense strengths. I think his main flaw was not realizing when he was being awkward. Time and again he achieves supermimesis for a passage or two then puts his foot in it. I read most of this aloud to Julie, as it's one of her favorite books, and was impressed at how vocally distinct the main figures were. He's good with characters, dialect, incidents, meaning, everything really. He just falters in magicianship, in sustained command, and it's sad how much that seems to matter. I was reading him at the same time as Cather, and boy did she win in that department. And that department was the only one that mattered: other things only matter as you can get them onto that blue guitar, and Steinbeck's kept flashing brown and violet.

7. Miss Lonelyhearts

Gazillionth time. His shock metaphors don't stop shocking. Most because of thingness, the way we fall into just things. And all so well done - I'm reading Chandler and Bishop now and there's no contest whatever with Chandler, despite how neat his can be, and an astonishingly close one with Bishop, who just nobody beats in metaphor. The perfect book of the worst of our several moods.

Unlike Steinbeck and Moore, who are peerless in their corners of strength and just weird otherwhere, West's book is very influenced, especially by "Young Goodman Brown" and Bartleby. And it sires promiscuously: Crying of Lot 49, when fused with "Lottery of Babylon" and Bartleby again; Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn't There, among tons else in the Coens; and a major strain of Roth's, even in Goodbye Columbus I'm seeing. Central, slicing, fantastic story.
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So I'm concluding it's rereading that may be the problem - I was entranced by Logue's Homer, all those Chekhov stories, the Whitman poems new to me. Someone observed somewhere online that while they loved every song on their iTunes playlist they were bored by fourteen out of fifteen when they played it on shuffle. Something like this happens even when I've been craving to reread something, where its pins and mine are usually not lined up quite correctly, and even when the connection's quite strong you're not happy because you remember how it was last time. You can look at this positively - it was there to teach you something, and perhaps you've just already learned it. I remain entirely Shelleyed and display extensive Ibsening.

You start to see how accurate Stevens' 'It Must Change' insistence really is, when this happens. We saw Mulholland Drive a couple nights ago and though bits of it had inevitably faded other ones were still striking, new ones even, or in new ways. Near-unintelligibilities, trains you can barely catch up with, may seem initially annoying but help extend an artwork's lifespan across yours. You begin to understand why Shakespearean English isn't quite Elizabethan English, why Dante alludes so insistently and graphically when he could just be saying. They don't hate you, they hate the thought of you leaving them.

Of course, mere baroquery doesn't help - you have to feel you got somewhere, and the most reliable way to have that feeling is to have done so, through all the shell games and doublings back and double meanings. They have to be wrestling into writing what changes for them too, the thing that stays itself through and because of its changes. But you can see how near-trickery, near-obfuscation are the tools you'll catch them using, and maybe direct trickery and unnecessary hoop-provision the most common small ways they fail. They fool the thing into appearing for them, fool themselves into being the people that thing would appear for, fool you into watching the thing not quite what you came for, to the immense benefit of all parties. The mystery of what doesn't make sense isn't the point, but rather the mystery of what doesn't look like it will but then does, barely, sometimes only partly. It has to remind us of what we're bound to again forget - that's the class of revelations poetry-type art can handle.

Not that when art doesn't work on you it's because you understand it. It's more likely to be that you feel you understand it already and hence can't pay full attention, just look for signs of what you thought it was when revisiting, shut your mind down and coast once you've pinned a few tails on that mockup. The furthest seeing artists punch through this resistance too, find ways to shock you out of lazy reading habits that stay strong even when you know what shocks are coming. Even if art weren't concerned, and quite properly, with what perpetually unsettles us it would have to make use of that to work on us at all.

But there's an honor to what can only work well once - and inevitably such artworks are what get us into art in the first place, impress us that it's something for us and not just something to do or be seen with.

I actually didn't much like American literature once, much like how I was hostile to scare-quote literature itself until I was about 20. I just tore through everything that called to me in Russian, British, French, German works etc. until American was the lion's share of what was left that people praised. And I guess one reason I went into it academically is because it was still live, a length I was still burning along at the time. It's kind of neat that that happens because it pushes you to new places, against your own ubiquitous, indefensible revulsions. Which doesn't mean everything widely or deeply praised is worth it, just that it's among that group you're likeliest to find the many things you still need and will love - despite how unnecessary and irritating they'll seem for some number of hours. Art-type love is a going, not a staying - if you keep going back to some it's because you or they keep on wandering off.
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Rereading again: Ever love a book so much you read it over and over?

Because I never, ever have. Closest I've done like it is rereading poems and short stories for work, or anyway with some thought of taking them apart to understand them. If I love a book a lot I might look back over it and reread some passages after finishing, but that's about it. I'm both jealous and confused at people who reread continuously out of love.

Books I love most often get diminished by the rereading, even after years have passed. Blood Meridian, The Road, Miss Lonelyhearts, even Hamlet took a bit of a hit, though they were all still worth it, especially Meridian which was fun for detective work.

I guess I associate continuous rereading with youth, with some more naive approach--asking for the same bedtime story every night. What did I do that with? I know I read Tolkien twice or thrice as a kid, but even those readings must have been separated by a couple years. I do remember going back and rereading certain stretches of Catch-22 multiple times at 16. The book got torn up some but I don't think it started in good shape, and I don't think I read the whole thing through more than twice. People reading books to pieces, that's what I'm talking about. Imagine doing that.

My wife read Fiskadoro and then forgot if she'd finished it, started again halfway through and read to the end, at some point realizing she had in fact finished it but not minding. And then she wanted me to read it to her aloud, and heard half of it again that way. Before I met her she only had Stephen King books around--she was very poor--and she read them over and over and over. As a teenager she did the same with Ayn Rand's novels (don't worry, she's cured) and a few others, including The Rise and Fall of the 3rd Reich, which she says was good for keeping men from hitting on her on the bus. Some of these are still around and they're in tatters, and usually not even her original copies. She also does it with certain Steinbeck books and Of Human Bondage, just glides through them every couple years. I've bought her at least two new copies of both. And now with Murakami and Saramago.

My nearest equivalent would be poetry, I suppose. I don't think I've read anything "hundreds" of times, but with a poem like "Adonais" I must be past ten, maybe fifteen, over the years. There's some I'll always come back to, after a time lag, but the time lag feels pretty crucial (like with Borges stories). Probably people who claim to read a whole book through and then immediately reread it are most often exaggerating anyway, but it's such a lovely thought: something so good you don't even need variety. Being exactly where you want already.
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Thinking about a hypothetical list of works to reread annually gets me meditating on rereading in general. Case studies:

Every other time I read King Lear it bores the crap out of me, feelingly utterly unreal and annoyingly structureless, and every other other time I read it it's soul-shatteringly great and I weep. This is obviously not a principle, just a coincidental alternation from having read it about 5 times - soul shatterer's up to bat - none of them particularly recently.

I read Crying of Lot 49 once or twice in the '90s and liked it pretty superficially - asked, I might have said it was 'zany and creepy' or something, though I'm always underestimating my dead selves. Then I read it in 2006 and barely finished it: it all seemed kind of obvious and foolish, with a pickup in energy and interest in the last chapters but not as much of one as I'd remembered, and ultimately nothing very special happening at all. And then I reread it to help teach it in 2007 and it was sublime. I was reading it carefully, therefore chasing down connections, keeping track of symbols, trying to relate it to Pynchon's likely reading down to that time, and it became a hell of a thing. Depth metaphors are faded, but it seemed exactly like finally seeing some Magic Eye metropolis of all-but-infinitely layered intrications of meaning where crayon scribbles had been. Except for certain parts which I will always find stupid, but even those now seemed to have a bait or narcotizing function, as ways to keep readers on the protagonist's page, to do to us some of what was done to her.

Rereading shorter works over and over across some relatively brief period of time turns up all kinds of patternless variations on these experiences: eurekas, total bored burnouts, feelings like you'd never read this before even though you did just yesterday, even pretty closely reproduced reactions of admiration or censure inspired by the very same aspects. There's definitely a real burnout arc - if I read "The Circular Ruins" more than a couple more times this year it's going to burn away for a while - but it's not always where you think it is. Which is why scheduled rereadings sound insane. I think a year off in between can recharge almost anything worthy though, or anyway what in you will ring against worth. But maybe not as reliably as two. Waiting for years before coming back to something can be a sign of love (an emotion I feel for neither Lear or Lot 49 so far): you don't want to even risk such burnout, the possibility of not being able to know whether the magic's faded because it's too soon or because you were wrong about magic before.

And some things you might not even need to reread. I think constantly about certain late Kafka stories I only read once. I'm not saying I remember them accurately, but the memories I do have still fascinate.

Some other things I wonder if you could even burn out. Obviously the answer is yes, but realism doesn't stop my wondering: suppose you read Prometheus Unbound every night for a week. Who the hell would you be by Sunday?

What I feel when I come back to that one, or Peer Gynt or some few other things, might even be better than the oh my god I love this can this possibly exist where am I searing love-falls of the first times. It's the certainty that I'm going to love it and that for once something cannot possibly disappoint me - and maybe that's a faith that all by itself prevents such disappointment, the normal cycles of missing appointments with works of art or being exactly where they are by chance or suddenly finding them.


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