Art Carden  

Which Books Should We Re-Read?

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Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. --Francis Bacon

My "Recent Reading" posts are (I suspect) pretty obviously inspired by Tyler Cowen. My last entry mentioned a re-reading of Atlas Shrugged, which got me thinking about the books people should not merely "read wholly, and with diligence and attention," but re-read, perhaps several times.

Which books (fiction and non-fiction) fit the bill? Off the top of my head, I'd say Atlas Shrugged, Les Miserables, CS Lewis's The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity, 1984, Animal Farm, The Brothers Karamazov (which I've read once but which I know I'll be re-reading carefully), and obviously a bunch of others I'm forgetting. In economics, I'd put Mises's Human Action and Hayek's Individualism and Economic Order at the top of the list. I'm also planning to read and re-read as much of the collected works of Adam Smith as I can over the next year or so.



COMMENTS (24 to date)
Hadur writes:

I can understand why some non-fiction books might be objectively worthy of multiple readings, because the ideas contained therein are important and perhaps not obvious the first time around. Of course it is highly arguable whether understanding a non-fiction book itself is actually important, or if what's more important is to understand the ideas therein: why re-read Adam Smith when you can get the same from reading the secondary literature on it?

But are any fiction books truly "important" in the same sense? Seems a lot more subjective: people should re-read the books they think they will derive pleasure from re-reading. Perhaps some novels are so complex that they typically have to be read several time before the reader "gets it" to the full extent the author intended (or even beyond), but it seems like an equally rational response to those books, in the presence of limited time, is to toss them.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

"why re-read Adam Smith when you can get the same from reading the secondary literature on it?"

I think you get more than just "the same" from reading the secondary literature. I had a conversation a few days ago: A (religious) relative had decided to re-study one of the books in the Bible for the umpteenth time. I suggested that, instead of limiting herself to her own perspective, she grab a few religious and historical commentaries on the text from the local library to open herself to other perspectives. I would imagine it's a similar experience reading a few pieces of secondary literature on, say, Adam Smith.

Hadur writes:

Lynx, I am inclined to agree. I think that reading the great books or the "classics" is more or less a form of conspicuous consumption. People do it to appear smart or cultured or what have you.

Literally millions of people have read these books before you. Chances are that at least a few of them are one or more of the following (i) smarter than you; (ii) a more insightful reader than you; (iii) a better writer/summarizer of others than either you or the author of the great book, and a few of them probably left behind secondary literature.

Should we, as people who read a free market blog, not defer to those experts to produce our understanding of great books, much as we would defer to an efficient pin factory for our pin-making, instead of making pins at home?

Cimon Alexander writes:

If you're going to read Atlas Shrugged, you might as well go straight to the source and read Nietzsche. I'm reading a version of "The Anti-Christ" with a forward by H.L. Mencken and it is very rewarding. Any fan of Rand enjoy it, and an extra enjoyment is added by being up to date with Moldbug's Cathedral.


That said, if you haven't read the Iliad, you won't understand most of the references in English literature before the 20th century. Fagles has a wonderful modern translation that everyone owes it to themselves to read.

[sorry for the delay--Econlib Ed.]

RPLong writes:

I found Plato's Republic much better the second time.

Eco's The Island of the Day Before isn't particularly hard to digest, but I've read it three times and have loved it each time.

So long as we're talking about Mises, Epistemological Problems of Economics is worth re-reading after reading Human Action and a few of his others. There's nothing else quite like it.

Art Carden writes:

Thanks for the comments and suggestions. I recall reading once a rule of thumb suggesting that one not read a work of fiction that is less than 25 years old. Presumably, by that time the experts have separated the wheat from the chaff. It's a suggestion I break all the time because I listen to Star Wars novels in the car, but I'm trying to shift my fiction reading toward recognized classics.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

I've used Daniel Immerwahr's site to recommend older novels to read, and I've been reasonably happy with the results.

BZ writes:

Dr. Carden -- Thanks for your comment. I discovered "golden age" sci-fi in the 80s and decided that there must be something special about that era. Later I dug up, with great effort, out-of-print works from that era and was confused at how bad it was. It wasn't until your comment about reading books less than 25 years old that it occurred to me: my opinion had been based on selection-bias.

Mark M. writes:

I found The Fountainhead to still be good on a second read. Kinda intimidated about trying Atlas Shrugged again.

Cimon Alexander writes:

Hmm, it looks like my comment may have gotten eaten by the moderator system. Just in case it was a user error in my pre-caffeinated stupor this morning, I would like to repeat that Rand is just a pale imitation of Nietzsche, who is eminently readable. Nietzsche is a good starting point for understanding the political evolution of the 20th century, especially if previously primed with the ideas of Rand and Moldbug's Cathedral.

Just don't start with Zarathustra. That's like Nietzsche's "Fountainhead", but unlike Rand it's his most unreadable work. "The Anti-Christ" is his last serious work and it ships with a nice forward from proto-libertarian H.L. Mencken. It roughly corresponds to several of the speeches from Atlas Shrugged.

Any serious student of humanity owes it to himself to get his brain into a pre-1945 mindset every now and then.

Scott Scheule writes:

Well, if we're going to talk about people "should" do, we need an idea of what they're trying to accomplish. If we're talking about reading literature in order to live some vague genus of the "good life," then I'd say anything rewarding and yet rather opaque merits a repeat. To figure out what's rewarding check, et al., Harold Bloom's Western Canon. By those standards, Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy are worth a reread. Patently transparent fiction--all Ayn Rand--does not.

Other books I've reread are ones finished in childhood before I could appreciate them: The Lord or the Rings and A Canticle for Leibowitz. Or just personal favorites, like Catch-22. King's It.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

Another thought: the "best" novels I've read are not the ones I'd most like to reread. I thought Updike's "Rabbit, Run" was spectacular when I read it in my 30's and I'll remember details from the novel for the rest of my life. But I'll never reread it. On the other hand, I end up rereading my collection of well-thumbed mystery paperbacks all the time.

Larry writes:

Not in order, but splendid in retrospect:

Thinking Fast and Slow
Guns, Germs and Steel
The Righteous Mind
The Blank Slate
Nurture Assumption
Capitalism and Freedom

Snow Crash
Midnight's Children
Moby Dick
Lonesome Dove
Herzog
Macbeth

Tim of Angle writes:

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Tracy Kauffman writes:

Hadur: I have to agree somewhat with your statement because writers have developed in today's culture more than they did in previous years. They are better educated and smarter. classics became classics because of the amount of readers who have read the books. The language of the past was more refined and sounded more like poetry and art such as in Shakespeare. The writers of today have a different verbalization and form but write just as well.

I second Atlas Shrugged and add The Fountainhead. Both are good: Atlas Shrugged is more of a treatise, while The Fountainhead is more about showing the application of Objectivism to one's personal life. And no, Nietzsche is not a substitute for Rand, as their philosophies were quite different. Rand synthesized empiricism and capitalism with Aristotelian virtue ethics. Nietzsche is hard to describe, but he was very different from Rand.
I also second the recommendation of Catch-22.
One book that's not recommended often but should be is God-Emperor of Dune. It requires reading the previous three books, but is well worth it. It's an excellent philosophical work about government.

Duncan Earley writes:

Very few books are worth a reread. Maybe 1984 and Animal Farm, but how about these to mix it up...

Sandman Preludes and Nocturnes - Neil Gaiman et al

The C programming language - Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie

The Very Hungry Caterpillar - Eric Carle

The Collector - John Fowles

Duncan Earley writes:

Oh I missed the best (fiction) economics book of all...

A Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Roger McKinney writes:

Helmut Schoeck's "Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior."

David Friedman writes:

The book I have read the most times is almost certainly The Lord of the Rings. That's mostly for pleasure, but also education, both in the author's ideas and in how to write. The second point is worth noting for those readers who are also writers.

Orwell's Letters and Essays, Casanova's Memoirs, Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Kipling's Kim, would be other books I have read many times.

And I have had the experience of reading a particularly complicated work of fiction (Cherryh's Downbelow Station) twice and only making sense of the plot the second time. But my favorite book of hers is The Paladin, which I reread for pleasure and, perhaps, instruction in writing—one of the reasons she was one of the people my first novel was dedicated to.

David Blair writes:

Rand fans who wonder why she's held in such low esteem by almost everyone who is properly schooled in western philosophy should get an answer or two in an upcoming podcast from the folks at The Partially Examined Life: http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2013/06/14/topic78-ayn-rand/

I have no association with PEL, other than being a less regular listener to their work than I am to EconTalk. For those who are wondering, here's how they describe themselves:

"The Partially Examined Life is a philosophy podcast by some guys who were at one point set on doing philosophy for a living but then thought better of it. Each episode, we pick a text and chat about it with some balance between insight and flippancy. You don't have to know any philosophy, or even to have read the text we're talking about to (mostly) follow and (hopefully) enjoy the discussion."

Speaking for myself, I've tried to read Rand a few times, but find that she's such a horrible writer that I just can't bear to witness her torturing of the language as she diminishes the novel as an art form. From what I've heard from her foes and fans, her ideas are the sort of stuff most of us outgrow in our sophomore year of college.

matt writes:

Memoirs and Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Conan-Doyle)
Things Which Have Interested Me (Bennett)
The True Believer (Hoffer)
Essays (Montaigne)
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Gibbon)

Lee Brooks writes:

Steering away from more obvious, older classics I would say that Bennett Coles recent novel Casualties of War makes a great second read. When an author writes a lot of depth into his stories and forms complex characters there is usually a lot of fresh meat remaining in the second read. Casualties of War is one of those and possibly the best sci fi book I've read in years. Definitely check it out if you enjoy military sci fi and haven't read this already http://www.bennettrcoles.com/works/casualties-of-war

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