The playground sounded like the long-vanished stockyards of Cleveland, but smelled better. Kids played four-square, kickball, tether-ball and a gladiatorial fusion of soccer and American football. Others, playing without rules or apparent purpose, chased each other and screamed, “punching and pulling each other’s hair to emphasize their points,” as Penelope Fitzgerald writes of her father and his siblings in The Knox Brothers. One boy sat alone on a bench, reading.
I kept my eye on him as I made my rounds, tying shoes, issuing bathroom passes (plastic clothespins labeled “Boys” and “Girls”) and breaking up the loudest of the fights. He appeared serene, untroubled, an obvious target for bullies. “What are you reading?” I asked, though I had already guessed from his age and the size of the volume. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” he said. The dust jacket was gone and the cloth of the spine was torn top to bottom. Each corner of the cover was worn to the cardboard and the binding had cracked in several places, turning one volume into four or five.
He’s 10 years old, started reading Rowling at age 7 and is on his seventh turn through the series. He rereads sequentially and has seen all of the movies at least twice. I asked what kept him coming back and he said, “They’re good. I like them,” and could put no finer a critical point on the matter, which is just fine at his age.
I asked myself: What novels have I read six or seven times? That’s easy: None. What novel have I read most often? That too is easy: Ulysses. Its linguistic and human density is Shakespearean – that is, inexhaustible but not perversely obscure (unlike Finnegans Wake) – and thus merits rereading. (Parenthetically, it takes its place among “conservative novels,” which “come in two leading varieties: one that enjoys a life and a world, another that grieves at their loss, its damage to people’s identity.” Joyce, the ultimate novelist of family, qualifies on both counts.) I’ve read it, I think, five times.
Which novels, I wondered, have I read more than twice? This requires a bit of digging in memory. Moby-Dick, of course. Proust’s masterwork. Tristram Shandy. The Man Who Loved Children. Bellow through Humboldt’s Gift. So Long, See You Tomorrow. Lolita, Pale Fire, Ada. Wise Blood. Morte d’Urban. The Sound and the Fury and Light in August. Kim. Madame Bovary. Little Big Man. Portnoy's Complaint. Stoner. Winesburg, Ohio. Huckleberry Finn. Rasselas. Gulliver's Travels. Middlemarch. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Malamud's The Assistant. At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. Invisible Man. Washington Square and What Maisie Knew. Sword of Honour. Beckett’s trilogy. If I stretch the bounds to include all fiction, then much of Chekhov, Isaac Babel, Borges and Flannery O’Connor. Stretch it further – Shakespeare, Dante, Montaigne and so forth. A good reader forgets much.
I’ll probably never again read fiction with the selfless absorption I saw on that kid’s face as he sat on the playground bench. I’ve never read Rowling’s books and have no plans to do so but I haven’t in a long time met so blissfully contented a reader.