C.S. Lewis, in his book An Experiment in Criticism, asserts that there are two kinds of readers in the world. There are those who read to “find out what happens,” and for them once a book is completed the fun is over. They don’t re-read; what would be the point?
For the other type of reader, the first time through a good book is just an introduction. This kind of reader will have books that they will read over and over throughout their lifetimes. They will linger over favorite paragraphs and passages like others will linger over a glass of fine wine. This sort of reader will memorize lines and scenes and find himself repeating them in appropriate moments – or maybe just repeating them.
I must be of the second kind. One of the reasons I know that is Cormac McCarthy. I first started reading him in 1992 when All The Pretty Horses was first published. I was forty years old then, married, with children, a law degree and a litigation practice. But in one way, before I read McCarthy, I was a kind of virgin. Although I was fairly well read by then, I had never encountered an author who did to me what All The Pretty Horses did. I fought him at first. The obscure sentences, the lack of quotation marks in dialogue, the long segments in Spanish untranslated, and the word here and there that sent me to the dictionary.
But I stuck with it long enough to be pulled in. And that is not too strong a description for what happened to me. Partly because his style forces you to focus so closely and partly because he so profoundly and subtly captures landscapes and scenes and characters and interactions between characters, I was drawn into the story – no, drawn into his world – as surely and maybe even more deeply as if I had been transported to west Texas in the early 1940s. I had heard that great literature makes you so aware of another world that you learn to appreciate the real world all the more. That happened with me. McCarthy described the forests and mountains and valleys of west Texas and then Mexico so vividly that I gained a new appreciation for the mountains and streams of West Virginia, where I live. He revealed the thoughts and intents of young men’s hearts so faithfully and so strongly that I became more aware and understanding of my own.
After reading All The Pretty Horses, I waited two years for the promised sequel and when it came I dove into it like I had once devoured the newest Beatles or Creedence album. Of the three works in the Border Trilogy, the second – The Crossing – gets the fainter praise.
But I picked the book up again just the other day and it was like hearing a poignant and almost-forgotten symphony. In the first three or four pages I was so carried away that I remembered why it is that I read. I read for the very thing this book affords. It is haunting, engaging, evocative, mesmerizing, enchanting. It sees the beauty of the surface and it sees the deeper beauty and horror of the emotion and motives that are beneath the surface. And there is something about his prose – the cadence, the strange words, the spareness of it. I don’t know how he does it. There are not three pages anywhere in literature that move and transport me the way these first few paragraphs do. There is simply nothing else like it.