First Reads

Here is a bit of Zen-like wisdom to ponder. You never get a second chance at a thing for the first time. Your first day on the job, your first time playing a game, your first time watching a great movie:  there is and always will be a solitary and never to be repeated first time. 

And so it is in the world of books.  You will read a book for the first time.  You place that book down.  You will look at it with some longing and say to yourself:  I will never have that experience again.  

What books would you like to reread as though it were the first time? I am going to present a handful of my own personal options here.  If you have options of your own, I am certain we at the Dillsburg Library would love some comments about them.  Here are a few of mine:

  1. The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne. This book has so much special meaning for me that I can hardly express it – and keep in mind I spent decades teaching college students how to express themselves in writing.  For a start, it was the first big book I ever read, and indeed it is big.  Maybe it is not quite a cinder block, but “big” is accurate. Right away you have a first time experience that cannot be repeated: finishing a large volume. Then we follow this up with the fact that Verne introduced me, like he did for generations of other readers, to science fiction. First go at an entire genre: that also cannot be repeated. We can conclude that Verne also taught that a character, in this case Captain Nemo, can drive multiple books if in fact that character is strong enough. People are more important than plots.  What a lesson to learn!  And to learn it for the first time with this book! (If you do not know Captain Nemo, I really must, by all moral standards, declare a gigantic “shame on you.”) I do not do much rereading , but I have reread this one.  It is still a delight, but not quite what it was like that first time. 

  2. The U. P. Trail by Zane Grey. Yes, that is quite the awkward title, prone to bad and tasteless puns by immature boys.  U. P. = Union Pacific, as in the Union Pacific Railroad. This epic by Western writing giant Zane Grey is about the building of the U. P. line.  Here again, I have multiple reasons why I would like to read this one again as though it were the first time.  Like the Verne mentioned above, this was an early read for me, a grown-up book when I was not a grown-up, and likewise an introduction to a genre: the Western. (An aside here, Americans have invented just two art forms: jazz and the Western.  Please get to know them.) Another factor: this epic book has over-the-top epic characters that, on a second reading, start to make a little less sense. There is a phrase about such books, “horse opera”, and for this book “opera” is the word you must keep.  Grey is utterly unafraid of going big and, man, he goes big in this romp of a read. Finally, and here I am about to get a little personal, I read this book from a collection of volumes from my late grandfather. He had the complete Grey published by a company called Walter J. Black Publishing. Not a house of prestige, this Walter J. Black.  But you see: my pappy allowed me to read his books; this was the first. No, an experience that cannot be repeated. 

  3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I can start to get a little less wordy here. I read this book for the first time when I was in Junior High. By the way, is it still called Junior High or maybe Middle School now or something else?  Anyway, I read it for one reason.  The school board wanted to ban it. As a result of this, I learned a few things for the first time.  Banned books are pretty good. Subversive books are even better. And there are good reasons some writers get a Nobel prize. I have since read countless so-called “banned” books as well as a large number of Nobel writers, but this was the first. 

  4. The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. Speaking of Nobel writers, Russell is my intellectual hero. My biggest wish is to be able to exercise his example of clear and logical thinking.  I have, sadly, learned that this book is not his best, barely qualifies as  history, and was done simply for the paycheck when he badly needed some cash. Nonetheless, it was an introduction to me for a specific style of thinking, to philosophy in general, and to the idea that nonfiction can be better than fiction. 

  5. The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth. I read this book by this postmodern giant before I knew or even heard of the term “postmodern.”  To this day, I am not quite sure how to explain that term.  You take some “typical” literature, then put it in a blender to see what happens. This book is actually based on some real life literature.  But it ends up being so hilarious that laughing caused me pain. Even just recalling it, let alone rereading it, makes me laugh. Yet, it also makes very serious points about history, politics and psychology. On top of that, it is a stylistic masterpiece with so many innovations that one cannot keep track.  There was a phrase invented for this writer: the literature of exhaustion.  That does not mean you’d be exhausted from reading the book.  It means the writer has exhausted all possibilities of what language could do.  When I first read this book, I did not know such books were even possible. Thus, I cannot ever experience it again as though for the first time. 

I said a handful, so I will let it rest at five titles. The fact is, as I produced this little essay, quite a few additional titles popped into my head. As I think I may have mentioned before in this space, during a good year I will read about 200 books.  I do not do a lot of rereading so there are many first reads to consider. 


Still I bloviate enough, so let’s hear from you.