Monday, November 29, 2004

What Books Are Worth Re-Reading?

Which novels are worth re-reading? It's a question that Hugh Hewitt has asked, and I have to admit I'm kind of handicapped when I give my answer.

I am a bibliophile. Which means that I read a lot--sometimes too much, according to my parents, and maybe too many of the wrong types of books. Generally speaking, however, most of the books in my collection I have read a second time, probably even more.

With that in mind, I'm going to name 10 books I have read and re-read, confining myself to works written in the 20th Century, that I think are worthy of being read a second time. I'll put up an link for the ones still in print, and I'll also try to explain why the books merit reading over and over. (I'll also try not to list any title that Hugh has put up; I like Tolkien, but Hugh's already read The Lord of the Rings twice so I won't repeat him here.)

Note: this list is numbered for convenience's sake, but this is not a ranking. Books I like to read depend on the mood I'm in, the time of day, if I've eaten, if I'm on an aircraft, etc.

1. Moonraker, by Ian Fleming
"Bond, James Bond." With the exception of Octopussy and the Living Daylights and The Spy Who Loved Me, pretty much all of Ian Fleming's work on the superspy James Bond are re-readable.
Why this one? We can pass over the space-shuttle farce with Roger Moore; if you want to introduce someone to classic Bond, this is it. All of the elements that make up a Bond novel are here: the beautiful girl, the wit, the classic over-the-top villain. Classic scene: when Bond defeats Sir Hugh Drax in (wait for it) a game of contract bridge. If you can wrap your mind around the image of Sean Connery playing your parents' card game, it's a pretty classic scene.

2. The Burglar in the Library, by Lawrence Block
Block likes to do "gritty" with his Matt Scudder series of mysteries, but there's genuine New York wit and humor in his books chronicling the adventures of Bernie Rhodenbarr, a bookseller who burgles houses in his spare time. In this adventure, Bernie goes out of town to track down a rare book -- a Raymond Chandler novel autographed for Dashiell Hammett. This one is particularly commendable because of a passage in which Bernie and his friend Carolyn encounter single-malt Scotch for the first time -- positively orgasmic.

3. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams
Adams is of course best known for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but this one is an underrated classic in sci-fi humor. Mix up murder, alien robots, time travel and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and you've got a tale that actually makes linear sense. Honestly, you'd have to read it to believe it.

4. The Godfather, by Mario Puzo
There's a reason why this is Puzo's most famous work, and it has nothing to do with Marlon Brando, Al Pacino or Francis Ford Coppolla. (Well, okay, maybe a little.) Puzo's work is different from the normal gangster novel because he emphasizes the "family" part of "crime family." Throughout Puzo's oeuvre is the notion of one generation sacrificing themselves for the next, which is something parents and seniors with adult children can relate to.

5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson
There's a lot of humor, and a lot of sadness, in this pseudo-fictional work. You can laugh at Thompson's two drug-addled protagonists as they confront the establishment-era Vegas and law-enforcement thugs, but the sadness comes from Thompson's eulogy to the youth-movement optimism of the 1960s, and his observations on the failure of both Establishment and Rebellion to understand each other. There's also something unique about Thompson's writing style, a barely-controlled energy that takes the reader along for a heck of a ride.

6. Clear and Present Danger, by Tom Clancy
Most of Clancy's works are eminently re-readable; his talent is to make a believable hero out of what is essentially a bureaucrat. This one is re-readable because its climax is a rescue mission (made necessary by betrayals from on high) staffed and helmed by middle-class people -- some mid-level office workers, a Coast Guard cutter, an Air Force helicopter crew and a grizzled vet. (It's also a lot more compelling than the Harrison Ford movie.)

7. Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, by Stuart Lake
Well, technically speaking this is a biography, but Lake took so many liberties with the source material (his interviews with Earp shortly before his death) that I have no problem calling this a novel. The prose is quaint, but Wyatt's life story still makes for a compelling read.

8. Kingdom Come, by Mark Waid and Alex Ross
Okay, yes, this is a graphic novel (i.e., a comic book), but it's still a very compelling comic book. Ross's photo-realistic paintings have the effect of pulling the reader fully into the comic-book universe, and Waid's story takes a unique viewpoint that has only recently come into vogue. You read it once for the story. You read it again to admire the artwork. If you want to know how far the sequential-art medium has come since the 1930s, this is a must-read.

9. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse
You can't very well put together a list of 20th-century books without at least one nod to the Master of the English Language. Most of Wodehouse's work prior to 1955 is very much re-readable, so it's hard to select one in particular. Bear in mind that Wodehouse's short stories are much stronger in form and prosery than his novels, but the "Jeeves & Wooster" novels are always a delight because of the sustained narrative of the burbling Bertie.

10. Too Many Cooks, by Rex Stout
Stout is pretty much in the Wodehouse class an an author worth re-reading, especially with the Nero Wolfe mysteries. This is a precursor to the "gourmet mystery" sub-genre in which Wolfe has to solve the mystery of a chef's stabbing. There's also an honest attempt by Stout to deal with the issue of racial prejudice, when Wolfe and Archie argue over how to interview a group of African-American waiters. (Stout took a considerable risk in showing the prejudices of his narrator.)

I could go on, of course; there are lots of books I think are worth re-reading: Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels (which I haven't listed because other bloggers are singing his praises), the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson. But I think this list is a pretty good one, and a chance to discover why so many of these best-selling authors stay best-selling.