In an effort to combat the usual bout of melancholy I experience around November, I’ve started re-reading The Silmarillion, which is, if challenging, a book of such incredible beauty, sadness, and insight that I find myself returning to it on a near-yearly basis. And while I may spend a post in the coming weeks writing about its many virtues, I think what is most on my mind now is more general and theoretical, dealing with why we return to books frequently, more than just reading them once for pleasure, as my thinking on this point is very much influenced by C.S. Lewis’ Experiment in Criticism, which proposes to think of criticizing books in terms of the reasons we read, and re-read, them.
See, Lewis’s thesis in the book is: while it is difficult to assess the value of a book from some theoretical objective standpoint, we may consistently judge a work of literature according to the way in which readers approach it. A commercial mystery novel, for example, is rendered valueless as soon as the mystery is solved. The reader will not return to the book, but instead search for a new mystery to solve. But we read and re-read books like The Silmarillion, or Shakespeare, or the Bible for different reasons, and with different results. I re-read The Silmarillion because I wish to see its beauty; I wish to study the way Tolkien unfolds his themes throughout the book; I wish to savor its language; I wish to spend time in his world, which even in its tragedy, often seems more just and good than my own. I re-read the Bible to drive home its wisdom; to explore the teachings of God and Christ about Himself and ourselves; I wish to reaffirm its moral teachings and see the way it interacts with my life at this time. Some books, like Fahrenheit 451 I re-read because they remind of my youth and because I simply like the story. Some, like Invisible Cities, I read to inspire me and start my brain wandering. Others, like The Man Who Was Thursday, I find a consistent source of consolation. And others still, like Crime and Punishment or King Lear, are puzzles of human behavior I strive to understand and resolve.