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?

At the Library

My stack from the library!

My loot from the library!

Once or twice a year we go to a university library.  We must if we want something even slightly obscure, because we can’t buy  all of our books, and these superb libraries are open to the public for a small fee.  We look for vintage mysteries, letters and autobiographies of historical figures,  quirky 1960s feminist  books, and the humorous stories of George Ade.  Today I came home with a very good haul:  Mary Norton’s Bread and Butter Stories (Virago), Jocelyn Playfair’s A House in the Country (Persephone),  Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels (a Booker Prize finalist from the ’80s), and a tatty out-of-print 1925 novel, The Celestial City, by Baroness Orczy.

I never made it out of the British lit section.


Great collection, but the fluorescent lights are terrible!

I love browsing.  Look at the photo of these wonderful stacks of British and Canadian literature.  They fill a large, long room on the top floor.  The American literature and the foreign languages were recently transferred to the basement because of a mould problem.  There are also two floors devoted to what I call “tech books.” When desperate, you can check out something with math in it, or teach yourself organic chemistry.

I hate the flourescent lighting, which turns everything a weird yellow. I wish they would update it.   But you can sit in the lovely reading areas, alcoves with natural light.  And I have seen worse.  In the beautiful town of Bloomington, Indiana, the university library has an astonishing collection but no windows above the second floor.  We used to read in a glassed-in smoking lounge for the natural light, though we didn’t smoke.  No one was all that upset about smoking in those days.

There are some stunning public libraries in the midwest, but ours is not one of them.  It is good for the newest books,  but they have discarded so many, many wonderful old books that I despair.   All the books by Angela Thirkell have been weeded.  I checked them out regularly, but they are still gone.  You will seldom, if ever, find a Virago, a Persephone, a Europa, or university press book.  I did persuade them to order a few NYRB titles, and I give them credit for that. They are open to suggestions.   But they have moved all the books by early twentieth-century writers Ruth Suckow and Bess Streeter Aldrich, both born in Iowa, to the non-circulating Iowa stacks.  I am bewildered by that.  Heavens, there is a Ruth Suckow Memorial Association and  her birthplace in Hawarden, Iowa, is  a museum.

Oh, well, I digress.  Back to the university library!  We looked at the Grant Wood murals, commissioned by the Iowa State University Library in the 1930s.

Grant Wood (1892-1942), the regionalist artist best known for American Gothic,  planned and coordinated this series of WPA murals.  He was  appointed head of the Public Works of Art Project for Iowa, a federal program providing work for unemployed artists.  Wood designed the murals, while other artists did the enlargements and the painting.  The theme was  inspired by the following quote by Daniel Webster:  “When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.”

imageAbove is a painting of a veterinarian getting ready to give a shot to a pig!  There is a school of agriculture and a veterinary medicine school.  (N.B.: It is sometimes known as Moo U.)  And, by the way, you should read Jane Smiley’s Moo, a satire of a school like Iowa State, where she used to teach.

imageIn the middle panel is a very cool machine–doing something! and on the right and left people are doing scientific experiments.  (Sorry, the right panel didn’t show up here, but you can see it below.)

imageThe only REAL person in the photo above is the man in the red jacket.  The others are oil paintings!


This man chopping wood is a detail from another mural.

Who knew you could have so much fun at a library!