5 Books You Can Read Again .… and Again and Again: Here’s Our Picks, Now Yours

Recent­ly, a Metafil­ter user asked the ques­tion: which books do you reread again and again, and why— whether for “com­fort, dif­fi­cul­ty, humour, iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, what­ev­er”? It got me think­ing about a few of the ways I’ve dis­cov­ered such books.

Writ­ing an essay or book about a nov­el is one good way to find out how well it holds up under mul­ti­ple read­ings. You stare at plot holes, implau­si­ble char­ac­ter devel­op­ment, incon­sis­tent chronolo­gies, and oth­er lit­er­ary flaws (or maybe fea­tures) for weeks, months, some­times even years. And you also live with the lan­guage that first seduced you, the char­ac­ters who drew you in, the images, places, atmos­pheres you can’t for­get….

But read­ing alone can mean that blind spots nev­er get addressed. We hold to our bias­es, pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive, despite our­selves. Anoth­er great way to test the dura­bil­i­ty of work of fic­tion is to teach it for years, or oth­er­wise read it in a group of engaged peo­ple, who will see what you don’t, can’t, or won’t, and help bet­ter your appre­ci­a­tion (or deep­en your dis­like).

Hav­ing spent many years doing both of these things as a stu­dent and teacher, there are a few books that sur­vived semes­ter after semes­ter, and still sit promi­nent­ly on my shelves, where at any time I can pull them down, open them up, and be imme­di­ate­ly absorbed. Then there are books I read when younger, and which seemed so mys­te­ri­ous, so pos­sessed of an almost reli­gious sig­nif­i­cance, I returned to them again and again—looking for the most enchant­ed sen­tences.

If I had to nar­row down to a short list the books I con­sis­tent­ly reread, those books would come out of all three expe­ri­ences above, and they would include, in no nec­es­sary order—

Absa­lom, Absa­lom!, by William Faulkn­er: I’ve writ­ten sev­er­al essays on this nov­el, over the course of sev­er­al years, and I love it as much or more as when I first picked it up. It’s a book that becomes both more grim and more dark­ly humor­ous as time goes on; its ver­tig­i­nous nar­ra­tive strat­e­gy cre­ates an inex­haustible num­ber of ways to see the sto­ry.

Wuther­ing Heights, by Emi­ly Bronte: I read this nov­el as a child and under­stood almost noth­ing about it but the ghost­ly set­ting of “wiley, windy moors” (as Kate Bush described it) and the furi­ous emo­tion­al inten­si­ty of Heath­cliff and Cather­ine. These ele­ments kept me com­ing back to dis­cov­er just how much Bronte—like Faulkner—encircles her read­er in a cyclone of pos­si­bil­i­ty; mul­ti­ple sto­ries, told from mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters, times, and places, swirl around, nev­er set­tling on what we most want in real life but nev­er get there either—simple answers.

Song of Solomon, by Toni Mor­ri­son: Morrison’s nov­el extracts from the 20th cen­tu­ry African Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence a tale of pro­found indi­vid­ual strug­gle, as char­ac­ters in her fic­tion­al fam­i­ly fight to define them­selves against social inequities and to tran­scend oppres­sive iden­ti­ties. Their fail­ures to do so are just as poignant as their suc­cess­es, and char­ac­ters like Pilate and Milk­man achieve an almost arche­typ­al sig­nif­i­cance through the course of the nov­el. Mor­ri­son cre­ates mod­ern myth.

The Yid­dish Police­man’s Union, by Michael Chabon. I taught this nov­el for years because it seemed like, and was, a great way to intro­duce stu­dents to the com­pli­ca­tions of plot, the joys of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion, and the empa­thet­ic imag­in­ing of oth­er peo­ple and cul­tures that the nov­el can enable. I can think of many ways some crit­ics might find Chabon’s book polit­i­cal­ly “prob­lem­at­ic,” but my con­sis­tent enjoy­ment of its wild-eyed sto­ry has nev­er dimin­ished since I first picked up the book and read it straight through in a cou­ple of days, ful­ly con­vinced by its fic­tion­al world.

Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges. The Argen­tin­ian writer’s best-known col­lec­tion of sto­ries and essays requires patient reread­ing. My first encounter with the book ear­ly in col­lege pro­voked amaze­ment, but lit­tle com­pre­hen­sion. I still can’t say that I under­stand Borges, but every time I reread him, I seem to dis­cov­er some new alcove, and some­times a whole oth­er room, filled with inscrutable, mys­te­ri­ous trea­sures.

This list is not in any way com­pre­hen­sive, but it cov­ers a few of the books that have stayed with me, each of them for well over a decade, and a few of the rea­sons why. What books do you reread, and why? What is it about them that keeps you return­ing, and how did you dis­cov­er these books? While I stuck with fic­tion above, I could also make a list of philo­soph­i­cal books, as well as poet­ry. Feel free to include such books in the com­ments sec­tion below as well.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 10 Great­est Books Ever, Accord­ing to 125 Top Authors (Down­load Them for Free)

Vladimir Nabokov Names the Great­est (and Most Over­rat­ed) Nov­els of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

Read 700 Free eBooks Made Avail­able by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (21)
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  • Richard Blumberg says:

    The sin­gle nov­el I’ve returned to most often is Kipling’s Kim. The rich­ness of his tapes­try, the love he feels for his char­ac­ters, the urgency of the plot, and Kipling’s keen aware­ness of the com­plex­i­ty and moral ambi­gu­i­ty of British colo­nial­ism allow new mean­ing to emerge for me each time I return. The oth­er nov­els that I’ve returned to more than twice include Moby Dick, The Once and Future King (although the appeal of that had begun to get musty last time I tried it), all twelve vol­umes of Pow­ell’s Dance to the Music of Time, and, for easy plea­sure, almost any­thing by Ter­ry Pratch­ett.

  • LJ says:

    Ein­stein’s Dreams by Alan Light­man

  • Daniel C says:

    I return to books that have more than one way of access, that can be con­tem­plat­ed as an object, a tes­sel­lat­ed poly­he­dron of mul­ti­ple mean­ings. What come to mind are cer­tain thick nov­els which con­tain a whole uni­verse in them:

    Lanark, by Alas­dair Gray
    Against the day, by Thomas Pyn­chon
    Mid­dle­march, by George Eliot
    Tris­tram Shandy, by Lawrence Sterne
    La vie mode d’emploi, by Georges Perec
    Rayuela, by Julio Cortázar
    Earth­ly Pow­ers, by Antho­ny Burgess

  • sfemet says:

    Rebec­ca, by Daphne du Mau­ri­er. Her gift for descrip­tion and mood is a joy to read.

    The Haunt­ing of Hill House, by Shirley Jack­son. A mas­ter­piece.

    Anno Drac­u­la, by Kim New­man. Alter­nate history/Historical fic­tion of the high­est order.

    To Kill a Mock­ing­bird, by Harp­er Lee. She makes writ­ing seem so effort­less, it takes my breath away.

    Break­fast at Tiffany’s, by Tru­man Capote. A gem of place and time, it is a les­son in the craft of writ­ing.

  • Scot says:

    Oh man, _Absalom, Absalom!_ is peer­less. Also love the Chabon and the Borges. My oth­er can­di­dates would be:

    _Light in August_, by Faulkn­er
    _Little, Big_, by John Crow­ley
    _Deathless_, by Cath­erynne M. Valente

    I’m sure there are oth­ers (includ­ing many of Philip K. Dick­’s nov­els), but these are the first to jump to mind.

  • fran says:

    If you liked Borges, you will prob­a­bly enjoy Cor­tazar, the oth­er great Latin Amer­i­can shaman. ‘Rayuela’ (Hop­scotch) is an amaz­ing expe­ri­ence and also the nov­el (or counter-nov­el, as it was ref­fered by Cortázar him­self) born to be reread, among oth­er things, because of his struc­ture, which splits into two dif­fer­ent sequences of chap­ters.

    The amer­i­can author and jour­nal­ist C. D. B. Bryan stat­ed in 1966: “Hop­scotch is the most sig­nif­i­cant nov­el I have read, and one to which I return from time to time. No oth­er nov­el by a liv­ing author [lit­tle shiv­er here] has influ­enced me as much, nor has inter­est­ed and enchant­ed me more than Hop­scotch. No oth­er nov­el has explored so ful­ly and com­plete­ly man’s com­pul­sion to explain human life, to seek its mean­ing, to chal­lenge its mys­ter­ies. No oth­er nov­el of late has devot­ed so much love and atten­tion to the whole range of the writer’s art”.

  • Max says:

    Walk­er Per­cy: Love in the Ruins. The sub­ti­tle cap­tures it: The Adven­tures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. A lit­tle sci­ence fic­tion, a lit­tle romance, and a lot of philo­soph­ic world view and per­spec­tive on the human con­di­tion. Seems more rel­e­vant each time I read it. Maybe that says some­thing about the tra­jec­to­ry of world events.

  • Nuno says:

    The Unbear­able Light­ness Of Being by Milan Kun­dera
    A Hun­dred Years Of Soli­tude by Gar­cia Mar­quez
    The Catch­er in Rye
    The Sun Also Ris­es
    Sand­man by Neil Gaiman

  • erict says:

    Gunter Grass~ Dog Years
    Lawrence Dur­rell~ The Alexan­dria Quar­tet (Yes, it’s cheat­ing, I know)
    Peter Matthiessen~ Shad­ow Coun­try
    Robert Graves~ I, Claudius
    Walk­er Per­cy~ Lost In The Cos­mos

  • Mike says:

    All 20 of Patrick O’Bri­an’s Aubrey/Maturin series.

    All 11 of C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Broth­ers series.

  • Mark says:

    Short works for my short atten­tion span:

    1. Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce)
    2. The Old Man & the Sea (Hem­ing­way)
    3. Death in Venice (Mann)
    4. Fic­ciones (Borges)
    5. The Meta­mor­pho­sis (Kaf­ka)

  • Kamil says:

    Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov by Dos­toyevsky

    So many char­ac­ters, so many motives and com­pli­cat­ed psy­cho­log­i­cal por­traits. And read­ing it is just like a going through a soap opera :)

  • wayne prophet says:

    I agree with all of your 5 selec­tions (espe­cial­ly Absa­lom, Absa­lom), but I must add a non fic­tion piece–Walden by HD Thore­au. I would omit Bronte if I had to remove 1 in order to add Walden. Most­ly sim­ply the most thought­ful and wry­ly com­ic book ever writ! I re-read it once per year.

  • Karen says:

    Lit­tle, Big was one of my favorite dis­cov­er­ies in read­ing dur­ing 2015.

  • Arlynda says:

    The works of Shake­speare, Moby Dick, and Walden.

  • Michela says:

    Ford Madox Ford, “The Good Sol­dier”

  • Michela says:

    Thomas hardy, “Jude the Obscure”

  • brian says:

    Melville ~ Moby Dick

    Whit­man ~ Leaves of Grass

    Dos­toyevsky ~ Crime and Pun­ish­ment

    Flaubert ~ Sen­ti­men­tal Edu­ca­tion

    Nabokov ~ Loli­ta, Ada

    Maxwell ~ So Long, See You Tomor­row

    McCarthy ~ Blood Merid­i­an

  • Peggy says:

    Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Mir­a­cles at Lit­tle No Horse and Vir­ginia Woolf’s Orlan­do.

  • Peter Chabanowich says:

    Dur­rell — The Alexan­dria Quar­tet

    Kazantza­kis — The Last Temp­ta­tion Of Christ

    Dun­can — I, Lucifer

    Benoit — The Supreme Doc­trine

    It is a joy to return to a tru­ly great read. I will like­ly read them all again before I depart.

  • Margaret-Rose Stringer says:

    Peter Tem­ple’s books — every one of the nine. My favourite author of all times.
    Michael Crich­ton’s “Time­line”.
    Patrick O’Bri­an’s Aubrey and Maturin series.
    Rose Tremain’s “Music and Silence”.
    Dick­ens’ “Lit­tle Dor­rit” and “Our Mutu­al Friend”.
    Hilary Man­tel’s “Wolf Hall”.
    Even Dick Fran­cis’ “Banker” !
    There now: a selec­tion to off­set all that amaz­ing­ly high-falutin’ read­ing already men­tioned.

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