I cannot remember how many times that I have read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, but I know it has to be at least three.
To borrow a phrase from a fine modern theologian (Marcus Borg), it is like I am meeting this book again for the first time.
I have been reading, and rereading, Chandler since I was a young man, and suffice it to say that one of the two words in that phrase young man, and one only, continues to describe me.
I figure my first reading was a mass market paperback, and then one or two more in trade paperback formats.
Make it three times.
When I sat down a few days ago to reread The Big Sleep, I recognized some of the plot details, the character Bernie Ohls, and the two crazy-wild Sternwood sisters.
And Philip Marlowe. Him I recall right well.
However, the flourishes of language and the finer points of the story came to me like snow on an outstretched tongue.
You well might ask me why I read a book, and read it again, and again, but isn’t it obvious?
I reread books to glean insights into the craft of the writer, and in the case of a writer like Chandler, whom I owe a debt of gratitude, I also reread for the sheer and surpassing joy of seeing and hearing Language at Play like angels with pens.
What I take away like a thief in the night
The woman withdrew her gaze from some distant mountain peak. Her small firm chin turned slowly. Her eyes were the blue of mountain lakes. Overhead the rain still pounded, with a remote sound, as if it was somebody else’s rain.
Well, when I woke up this morning, I must have had someone else’s blues.
I swear I don’t know why.
My wife called me and said I got two checks in the mail I got a refund on my union dues.
When I pull my hands out of my pockets, I come up with a fistful of hundred dollar bills.
But when I woke up this morning, I must have had someone else’s blues.
Do you recognize the first quote?
It’s from the big finish of The Big Sleep.
Do you recognize the second quote?
It’s my mangled version of a favorite blues song.
I can appreciate, and I can copy, and I can mimic great writing, but in the end I am on my own, and reading, rereading, listening, borrowing, and stealing are ways of marking time between seated sessions at the keyboard.
What I have learned over the years from Chandler is that a novel that features a detective is vastly different from a detective novel, just like The Collected Letters of E.B. White is vastly different from Charlotte’s Web. Just like a series of books about a set cast of characters, even a fine series like Christopher Fowler’s titles concerning the Peculiar Crimes Unit, is not anything like the loosely connected novels of Chandler, whose glue is called Marlowe and whose pages stick to your mind like thoughts and feelings from on high.
As Robert Frost says, One can do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Would I remember if Frost had said, instead, that one can do worse than be a poet?
About this series I call #rereading —
I’ve always figured that I have a book addiction. I just never intended to do anything about it.
However, the flow of books in and money out has finally brought me to a peaceful truce with my mania.
I have not bought a book for many weeks, and I intend to stay this course.
I have stopped mindlessly buying books, which means that I am free to read the books that I have on hand. For as long as I can remember, I have impulsively dreamed up research plans and purchased the books I imagined that I would need. Such dreaming is the work of a moment, and with the help of Amazon and single-click fulfillment, I have a number of piles ready and waiting for my attention.
Trouble is, I have been far better at the dreaming than the reading, like those who live to sleep.
- My first project, in a series I’m calling #rereading, is the works of Raymond Chandler AKA Philip Marlowe. The first post in that series [Here’s Why Chandler] follows this post.
A note on #rereading: Since my dreaming about these book projects revolves around moving from what I know to what I want to know, it is accurate to stress the re- part of the reading. Also, I like the idea of meeting books again for the first time.
Take your pick.