Notes from the Stacks: Rereading Habits & Rituals

The reference room in the “new addition” of the old public library, circa 1963

The library was a sanctuary, rather like the Drones Club in P.G. Wodehouse, minus the leather chairs and drinks.

It was a mile from our house.  It was a Carnegie library with an ugly brown brick addition,  built in 1963 and known as “the new addition” for almost 20 years, until the library moved across the street in 1981.

The “new addition”of the public library

The library was a  place to hang out.  My friends and I went there after school.  I was too chatty  to be a favorite of taciturn Miss W., the librarian who is now an Iowa City legend, but I loved her collection of books, and repeatedly checked out The Enchanted Castle, the Betsy-Tacy books, Elizabeth Goudge’s novels,  and all of Eleanor Estes and Elizabeth Enright.  My mother  “did not care for” Miss W:  they  had clashed over her refusal to order the Nancy Drew books, which Miss W. told my mother were “badly-written.” My mother said that, badly-written or not, my friends and I read them, and they were very expensive.

My mother was ahead of her time.  Was she a legend?  No, she was a housewife.  Nowadays librarians order series books, doing whatever it takes to get kids to read, and my hometown library stocks Nancy Drew.  And you know what?  I have reread a few Nancy Drew books, and they are not bad at all.

I have always been a big rereader.  I love rereading Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle  (I bought a copy in a thrift shop, and my husband once read it to me when I was very sick), Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop (the first book I checked out on my adult card),  anything Victorian, Mary Stewart’s Gothics,  and  my favorite, Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

But I don’t enjoy rereading children’s books.  It took me a record two years to reread The Enchanted Castle–a chapter every month or two–because I now prefer Nesbit’s realistic novels to her fantasies.  In my twenties I  sold my collection of hardcover E. Nesbit books with illustrations by H. R. Millar.  Foolish, foolish, foolish!

We all return to favorite books occasionally.  A recent essay in the TLS, “Déjà lu” by David Collard, got me thinking about rereading habits. Collard says that, since coming across a New York Times piece on rerading by Verlynn Klinkenborg, he has borrowed the idea that rereading is “a refuge.” Some of his favorite books to reread are The Otterbury Incident, The Land of Green Ginger, Alice Through the Looking-glass, Dickens, Cyril Connolly’s The Rock Pool., and Moby-Dick.  But some, he says, do not hold up.

I must have read around fifty novels a year for the past forty years (and other books, of course), amounting to about 2,000 works of fiction. Some stand up well on re-reading; others do not; Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, for instance, which I once thought wonderful and now find unreadable. Some novels I’ve read twice, a handful many times and one in particular more than any other.

I reread The Alexandria Quartet a few years ago, and it is rather weird, but I still enjoyed. In fact, reading about his rereading, even though he didn’t like it, makes me want to reread it.

These are first editions. I wish I had these…

Almost anything can spur a rereading. I recently got out my copy of Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling (1939), the story of a boy who raises a deer as a pet. We were watching Everwood, a charming TV show in which widowed neurosurgeon Andy Brown (Treat Williams) moves from New York to Everwood, CO, with his children to start a new life and opens a free family medicine clinic. They come home one day to find a deer has broken in and is nibbling on the garbage:  Andy and his son take a trek through the wilderness to return it to the wild.  (It is not a happy father-son trek.)

My husband did not believe the deer would  eat out of Ephraim’s hands.

“Didn’t you  read The Yearling?”

No, they did not read it in Catholic school.

This book is nightmarishly sad, and I hated it as a child. The hero Jody, a young boy, lives in the backwoods of Florida. The fawn, Flag,  is motherless because Jody’s father Penny was bitten by a snake and Jody shot the doe because they needed the deer liver as an antidote–or something!  The fawn is like a dog, so sweet.  But you know animal stories.  They’re tragic.

I still find the dense dialect a bit ridiculous, so I probably will just skim.

Jody said, “You shore kin figger what a creetur will do.”

“You belong to figger.  A wild creetur’s quicker’n a man and a heap stronger.  What’s a man got that a bear ain’t got?  A mite more sense. He cain’t out-run a bear, but he’s a sorry hunter if he cain’t out-study him.”

Well, it is far from my favorite reread.  But am I missing something?  It won the Pulitzer.  Why did they like this in 1939?

What books do you like to reread?

12 thoughts on “Notes from the Stacks: Rereading Habits & Rituals

  1. I would certainly concur with the idea of rereading as a refuge. I know that during the last year, when there have been times that reading was difficult, I have gone back to books that I already knew and which I found easier, therefore, to read. I’ve also found listening to books that I’ve already read a great pleasure, especially when I’ve come across a particularly sympathetic reader.

    • I am so glad to see you, Alex! I have visited your blog and worried about your absence.

      Yes, favorite books are comforting when you’re ill. And I have just discovered audiobooks–much later than anyone else!

  2. Goodness, I’m starting to think SilverSeason and I are the same person! The Alice books, both in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, are reread often. I also reread one or two of the original (I hate the 1960s rewrites!) Nancy Drew books each year. That’s about it. I love that your husband read to you when you were sick. That’s so sweet.

    • I’ve always heard the original Nancy Drews were better: I grew up on the 1950s and ’60s books, so I love them, but wonder if the updating was necessary.

      You and SilverSeason both have great taste!

  3. I’ve been known to return to Enid Blyton, and also the Tolkien books. But Agatha Christie, who I read in my teens, is one of my greatest comfort reads. And I have to say that I love the decor in that library extension – mid-century modern is my think!

    • Agatha Christie is great. They demolished the ’60s addition when the library moved so they could build apartment houses. My husband and I were scandalized. Did they need a new library? Well, the new one is nice–but not as libraryish.

  4. I was blessed to have my mother’s own Nancy Drew books from her childhood in the 30’s and 40’s. She read them again as I finished each one; it was wonderful to be able to discuss each book with someone.
    The Yearling breaks my heart; I cannot bear to reread it. I’ll read again any book I truly loved; if only I had time!

    • How great that you and your mother discussed Nancy Drew! I have always heard that the originals were the best.

      I did cry over The Yearling. All the animal books make me cry.

  5. I love to reread! My mother used to get me the very old first editions of Nancy Drew books complete with dreadfully rascist language and roadsters and trucksters from the Bryn Mawr used book shop (a wonderful place).

    I reread a lot of poetry, Trollope, Barbara Pym, and have reread most of the major Victorian novelists and, of course, Jane Austen.

    I’m always delighted to reread Agatha Christie, even if I remember every detail of the plot.

    • Oh, perhaps that’s why they were revised then. I was content with my ’50s and ’60s Nancy Drews, but people always claimed the old ones were better.
      I agree with ALL your rereading choices!

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