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?

Why I Love to Reread: The New Brontë Craze

A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.”
― Robertson Davies

vintage woman reading book stock-illustration-21375543-vintage-woman-reading-book-and-holding-cup-of-coffeeThere is a secret bloom that arrives in late middle age.

It has to do with books.

Rereading a book for the first time in decades is an entirely new and delightful experience.  You remember your first reactions, and add new impressions from years of reading history and reviews.

I always have my nose in a book.  From Virgil to Virginia Woolf, from Catullus to Colette, and from Gogol to Edward Gorey.

Below is a humorous image of Rory (Alexis Bedel) on The Gilmore Girls, with her nose in a book at the Harvard Library.

For a couple of decades after graduate school, I had little time to reread the classics.  In my free time I reviewed contemporary fiction for newspapers and (now defunct) literary journals. I was remarkably well-informed on the trends of the 1980s:  the minimalist stories of Ann Beattie, the gritty working-class fiction of Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus, John Updike’s suburban adulterers, the  bizarre humor of T. C. Boyle (then known as T. Coraghessan Boyle), and the magic realism of Louise Erdrich.

The bad thing about reviewing is that you don’t get to choose the books.

The good thing about not reviewing is that there is no longer pressure to keep up with the latest books.

And so I have been free to reread the classics.

I have reread all of Austen’s novels several times.  Emma is my favorite.   But, yes, you can read too much Austen.  I am on an Austen break at the moment.  But never fear, I’ll be back.

anne bronte tenant of wildfell hall 51Sp7PW34wL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My latest craze is rereading the Brontës.  I just reread Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Is Anne as interesting as Charlotte and Emily?  No, but she is very good indeed.

Although her style is not  as poetic or striking as that of Charlotte or Emily, I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne’s feminist novel about the perils of romantic love.  The frame construction reminds me of Wuthering Heights.   We get to know the heroine, Helen, through the narrator’s intense  letters to a friend, and then through the diary she gives him to read, and then back to his letter.  She marries an attractive man who turns out to be a dissolute drunk.  She escapes with her son to live in the run-down Wildfell Hall.

I wish Anne had written more.  I like Agnes Grey less than the intense Tenant. 

Are you or aren’t you a rereader?  What are your favorite books to reread?