It’s been months since I’ve written here, and while one of my goals this summer is to get caught up on all my reviews, today’s post is not a review. For the past few days I’ve been completely consumed by rereading a favorite book. And so many thoughts have swirled around in my head, that I felt the need write it all out. So maybe you want to read this, maybe you don’t. But here it is, a little essay about rereading a favorite book.
When I was young I reread a lot. Part of the reason was that if there was a book I liked, why not enjoy it all over again? Another reason was that our library was small and we relied on the books that were there. Without the internet, social media, Goodreads, there was much less awareness of what new books were coming out. I simply read what was on the shelves. If I didn’t see anything I liked (and sometimes it felt like I’d read everything), I just grabbed something I already knew I liked and read it again. When I started my job this winter I shared this quotation with my students: “There’s nothing wrong with reading a book you love over and over. When you do, the words get inside you, become a part of you, in a way that words in a book you’ve read only once can’t.” ― Gail Carson Levine, Writing Magic.
I think it’s important for kids to know that it is ok to read the same books over and over again (and I also think it’s absolutely ok to read books “below your level” and can’t stand it when I hear people tell kids not to, but that’s another story.) and I do believe that a book can become a part of you. I still find myself thinking of lines from books I read as a child in certain circumstances.
As an adult, though, I rarely reread anything. A big reason is the opposite of the reason I did reread as a kid–with social media, Goodreads, book publicity and promotion, I literally never run out of books I want to read. I have a huge list of titles I’m interested in. I seek out and anticipate newest titles by favorite authors. I know I’ll never get to them all, and so it seems I don’t have time to reread something. [Once, at dinner with my girlfriends who also love to read. Denise: “Do you ever worry that someday we’ll run out of good books to read?” Melissa: “No! I worry that I’ll never get to them all before I die!”]
A couple of years ago I decided that my reading goals would include taking the time to read a couple books each year that I have read before. I even created, what else? a list on Goodreads of the titles I would like to reread, of course.
Last summer it was The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. Then I received a new set of Anne of Green Gables for Christmas and I read Anne of Green Gables, and then last week Anne of Avonlea. Last summer I read aloud to my children the Melendy Family books: The Saturdays, The Four Story Mistake, and Then There Were Five. These titles were probably the ones I had most recently read. And over the years I have read other children’s books from my childhood to them-Queen Zixi of Ix, A Dog on Barkham Street, The Trolley Car Family-and these held their own pleasures. And then, this week, in a fit of not wanting to read anything new I had around, I turned to The Shell Seekers (also, like Anne, a new edition I’d received for Christmas.)
The Doomsday Book, Anne of Avonlea, The Four Story Mistake, and The Shell Seekers. These books do not have very much in common, except that they are all books I would count as my very favorites of all time (top 5!) Why had it taken me so long to come back to them? When I read the Doomsday Book I truly could not remember the ending.
On the one hand reading these books was a pleasure because they are good stories, well written, and stand the test of time. The Doomsday Book is incredible historical fiction and introduced me to Connie Willis’s meticulously researched style. It brought to life for me the horrors of the Black Plague, and the dirty and hard details of life in the 13th century. Anne of Green Gables might be super old-fashioned, but it is still a lovely story about a feisty heroine who is smart and spunky and romantic. The Anne books were a huge part of my adolescence and I couldn’t believe I had forgotten some very significant things in them. I also realized that I’ve seen the movie so many times that now when I read the books that is what I visualize.
On the other hand, reading these special-to-me books again, from the viewpoint of many, many years since I’d first read and fallen in love with them, gave me an insight I was not expecting. I was able to clearly see that many of my perceptions and expectations had their origins in these books! It was, honestly, kind of emotional. With the Enright books I realized that, having read them as a child, I truly believed my own children would be like the children in those stories. Guess what? They’re not. And as I reread those books with my own falling-short-of-being-like-a-fictitious-1950s-child children, I saw that I had loved those stories so much that I believed my own family when I grew up would be just like theirs. I realized as I read a chapter about Rush and Oliver just whiling away hours in the woods, exploring on their own, that that’s where I’d developed that expectation for my own boy.
Now, The Shell Seekers. I adore Rosamund Pilcher novels, especially Coming Home and The Shell Seekers. I would love to live in one of her books. Reading this book again was like falling into a wormhole into a world I didn’t want to be disturbed in. The story was just as wonderful as I remembered, and it all came back to me so easily and quickly. How funny to find, too, that I visualized the places exactly as I had when I first read it. You see, those characters and places had become real to me, thought of over the years from time to time, and they were still there when I went back to them. I realized, the more I read, that this book is what created for me the things I look for in a British book, the likely misconceptions I have about Britons (everyone is “frightfully clever”, things are “horrid and ghastly”, everyone has a scotch or whiskey or gin and tonic all the time, and people are clueless about medical care), and the interest I have in World War II fiction. And perhaps most of all, the built up in my head over the years idea that Cornwall is the most idyllic place in the world and that I must go there someday. Though let’s be honest, if I do, I won’t be a Pilcher character who easily throws on threadbare caftans and looks glamorous, easily treks 3 or 4 miles to get to the sea, and so on. In the novel, The Shell Seekers is a painting, valuable and significant for many reasons, but especially because Penelope (whose father painted it) has found solace in the painting her whole life. When I read it this time I was very aware of all the times that Penelope sat and looked at the painting, and how she felt when she did. And I realized that this book had become, to me, much like that painting had to Penelope. A story that, even when I wasn’t reading it (as I haven’t for 20 or so years) I could escape to in my mind to find that same peace.
I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those people (or characters,I’ve yet to meet a person in real life who actually does this) who reads a favorite book annually. But to go back and read a treasured book after a long time apart, well, it’s wonderful. Go ahead, try it.