Rereading Beloved Old Books

March 8th, 2009

The joy of rediscovering an old friend

Since my kids can tear through a middle reader book in about an hour, I find myself–despite my belief in supporting independent bookstores–frequently urging them to find the next volume in whatever series they’re reading at the school or local library. They do, on occasion, but when it’s a book they’re particularly excited about or have reason to believe they’ll enjoy more than most, they’ll dig their heels in and say, “But, Mom, I have to own it–what if I want to reread it?”

Remember those days when you used to reread a book over and over again? Before school got so hard and so busy that it was all you could do to keep up with your English lit and history reading? Before you felt the weight of the hundreds of thousands of new books being constantly published and talked about and critiqued that you needed to catch up on? Before you felt acquiring new knowledge was more important than simply lazing around, enjoying the adventure of a good book?

But maybe you still reread your favorite old books. Do you? This is a serious question, not a rhetorical one, by the way. I’d love to know the answer.

What proves a book’s worth more than the fact that you’d be willing to spend more of your fairly limited hours on this earth (sorry–I’m a little morbid) curled up with it not just a first time but a second or maybe even a third?

Our dining room is also our library: the walls are lined with bookshelves. Sometimes my eyes will fall on a book and I’ll think, “Oh, I LOVED that one. I should read it again.” Usually, I don’t. I have a stack of things I’ve never read before on my night stand, and a sense of duty toward the books still unread tends to win out over the urge to return to something I loved in the past.

And yet, and yet . . . Sometimes the siren call of a beloved book is impossible to resist. Just this week, I happened to spot my very old copy of Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini. If you don’t know who Sabatini is, I’m sorry for you. He was , if not the original writer of swashbucklers, probably the best. Hollywood dipped freely into his work in the thirties and forties– Errol Flynn would probably not have had a career if it hadn’t been for Sabatini. Anyway, my father actually turned me on to Sabatini who had provided him with hours of happy escape from a not particularly happy youth. Despite my lifelong reluctance to take my father’s advice, I read a bunch of Sabatini’s novels and I loved every word. Best of all is Scaramouche, which is set during the French Revolution and begins with one of the greatest of all first lines: “He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony.”

Anyway, I took Scaramouche down from the shelves and put it on the dining room table where it lay, for several days, ignored and forgotten. My father happened to be in town and spotted it. He uttered a chortle of joy upon seeing his old friend. That reminded me about it and, a few days later, I brought it up to my night stand. And for the few nights following I was in bliss, lost in Sabatini’s very romantic, very funny, and very exciting world.

There are, as far as I’m concerned, two good reasons to reread a book. One is because you know it so well that you’re certain it will give you pleasure. Pride and Prejudice and The Scarlet Pimpernel fall into that category for me–yes, I know every word of them almost by heart. But those words are so wonderful!

The other is because you know you missed something the first time, that your age or changed circumstances will bring new meaning to something you liked but didn’t entirely get the first time. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card was like that for me: I read it as a kid and thought it was exciting and had the most amazing ending of any book I’d ever read. I reread it as an adult and found the underlying theme–of how we require soldiers to act inhumanely but then expect them to retain their humanity–absolutely heartbreaking.

Dickens is another author who you’ll read differently as an adult than as a kid. And I remember reading Charlotte Bronte’s Villette when I was pretty young and being horribly disappointed that it wasn’t as romantic and passionate as Jane Eyre. I gave it another try years later and was blown away by how brilliant and true and painful it was. The truth is, it’s a far more sophisticated novel than my beloved Jane Eyre and I wasn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate that first go-round.

At this stage, I think my kids mostly reread for the first reason. My fourteen-year-old has read the whole Harry Potter series so many times I’ve lost count. Eragon, too. I found him rereading a series I knew he’d already read a few weeks ago and said, “Why aren’t you reading something new?” and he said, “I just wanted to relax.” He’s in high school, working his tail off, and reading so often is a chore now, not a pleasure. So I got what he meant: sometimes, when you pick up a book, you don’t want to blaze new trails. You simply want to wander lazily down beloved old ones.

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