How To Read Faulkner
An interviewer once said to Faulkner, "Some people say they can't understand your writing, even after they've read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?" Faulkner replied, "Read it four times." He was not altogether joking.
It is now an accepted axiom that one cannot read high modernist texts by authors like James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Faulkner: We can only re-read them. But why should that be a problem? All great literature deserves multiple readings, and with each new reading we discover things in the text that we had not seen or properly appreciated before. Lionel Trilling once observed that everyone should read Huckleberry Finn at least three times—once when we are young, once when we are middle-aged, and once when we are old. Most experienced readers agree with this sentiment in principle, yet many of us still persist in our desire (naïve though it may be) that a literary text reveal itself clearly and completely upon a first reading.
Interestingly, and ironically, literature seems to be the only art form that we feel this way about, the only one we are reluctant to revisit, even believing that the need to do so represents some kind of failure of the author. We don't, of course, adopt this attitude toward painting or architecture or music or dance. We don't, for example, choose to look at a painting or a work of sculpture just once: rather, we purchase it and exhibit in a convenient place and return to it time and time again, appreciating it all the more with the re-viewings. Similarly, we like to hear good music or view an outstanding dance performance over and over again, never tiring of their familiarity. So it should also be with our reading of books, especially the great ones. Still, even accepting this point, one must concede that Faulkner remains a special case. Whereas all great writers deserve a second reading, Faulkner requires it. Nevertheless, as legions of his admirers from all around the world testify, he's worth it. Reading Faulkner is indeed a challenge, but the rewards found in re-reading him far exceed the effort.