Natalie Jenner, in this piece from LitHub, expresses surprise that lots of readers live with the idea that a book should only be read once. I’m surprised too, though I can accept that there are lots of people who want never to have to read a book in the first place. It seems obvious to me that if you’re a book reader you’d want to read the good ones more than one time. But I suppose there must be people who regard each book as a hurdle to be jumped over, and yet remain eager readers. Ms Jenner is obviously a rereader: she is the author of The Jane Austen Society: A Novel — you’ll never guess which books she likes to reread!

I have just finished rereading All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren, having recently finished for the third or fourth time his Brother to Dragons, an amazing verse “novel” about Jefferson’s nephews.

All the King’s Men must have the best first few pages ever written (and the rest’s great too) describing a car hurtling up a new concrete slab highway in the unnamed southern state in which the action takes place. The author manages to slip in all the themes of the book in tiny imperceptible asides in the first half a dozen pages. It’s almost as if with these pages, and a biography of Huey Long, you could just stop there. It’s one of those books I was keeping for rereading on that famous rainy day. Well, I think it’s now raining: you begin to wonder if you don’t do it now might you run out of time!

Can you believe that there was once a time when you could buy an almost 500-page novel for $1.25? That catch line is a bit unfair to Willie Stark: he just knew how to win elections and was determined to get his way, which really was designed to force good things on the simple folk. The imprints page provides a wildly comprehensive printing history, something I’ve often called for, but here even I have to wonder if this isn’t way over the top. I must have bought this book almost immediately upon landing at JFK — after all it had printed two times in 1972, and 1973, and it wasn’t till July 1974 that I touched down. We always thought that mass market paperbacks didn’t stick around too long in bookstores: this copy had to have been there more than six months! I was primed for Robert Penn Warren, having had an American friend in Cambridge, UK who’s PhD was about him; so no doubt it was the first “American” book I read.

This book was reprinted by letterpress from stereos — you can see evidence of damage to the edges in a few pages. Stereos are sheets of metal moulded from the type or more accurately from a mould of the type charmingly named a flong. They would be remounted on the press whenever more copies were required, but, life being what it is, they might suffer a bang on the corner when being handled, and this can be detected by a few lines of type strangely compressed at the edge of the measure.

In this case they obviously imposed the job by aligning at the foot. The evidence is provided by page 401, where you can see that the typesetter allowed an extra line’s space between the final word of the chapter and the bottom of the page which is indicated by the folio. (In my post on Measurement I told you that printers mostly stripped up to the head of the page: but not always. Here the position of the folio is exactly consistent throughout the book, so aligning on that should have worked.) Can this single misalignment mean that a correction was made to this page? Someone would surely have noticed this error after four or five printings: the top line ends up in danger of being trimmed off. Maybe the stereo for this page got so badly bashed that a replacement had to be made, and the flong wasn’t available for some reason.

Folded into the back of the book, and explaining the need for tape on the cover, is an essay by the author about the creation of the book from the May 31, 1981 issue of The New York Times Book Review. O glorious days in which that publication could include a five page serious critical essay! Apparently the novel started its life as a verse play entitled Proud Flesh. Warren was working at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge while Huey P. Long, the “Kingfish” was governor, and taught Julius Caesar to a Shakespeare class which included Long’s daughter Rose. Warren set his play aside for a few years and when he came back to it realized the category error. He reworked the piece in Minneapolis, Washington, DC, and finished it in New London, CT. The piece ends “The book appeared on August 19 [1946]. The first major review took it to be an apologia for fascism. . . . Well. . . . Further the deponent saith not.” Good to see that reviewing standards are still being maintained.

Rather satisfying to be able to reconstruct so much from a single copy. The paper has obviously yellowed. You didn’t print mass market paperbacks on anything other than groundwood — newsprint, which is just paper made from the whole log, from mechanical pulp, not from chemical pulp which removes the lignin and other impurities which lead to acidic yellowing, brittleness, and eventual disintegration. The binding’s had to be supported by taping, and the title/verso has worked loose, but otherwise the book is holding together fine. As someone who worked for years at making these damn things I never use any violence when I read a book, and this one will stand my rereading it a couple of more times.

See also Rereading.