Hey baby, your library or mine?
Last night the girls and I had a lovely dinner with friends in their back yard. (The friends in question were providing me with week-night sustenance and adult conversation while my husband is off yukking it up in DC at the Frye Institute, lucky man.) And when the kids had pushed around their rice and Butter Chicken long enough, they all left the table to go amuse themselves. Greta read a graphic novel over Simon’s shoulder; Ingrid helping Phillip super-soak the van–thus revealing a great deal about their characters, I am sure.
As the adults were talking about the kids and their reading habits–two of them have gone through phases where they read the Harry Potter novels over and over again–we revealed that one of the three of us re-read things as a kid, the other two did not. I did not, and generally do not, re-read books. Even books I really, really like. Why is that?
Part of it is, I think, related to Dale’s recognition that there are only so many days in a lifetime and you can’t get to everything you want to read. That being the case, re-reading takes away time you could spend with another NEW and EXCITING book. Or maybe it also has something to do with why I dislike revising so much–I’m done with it; moving along now.
As a pre-teen, in my truly voracious reading years, I read for volume with a side-order of sensation. Gothic horror novels, Daphne DuMaurier, fantasy novels, under the covers with a flashlight until 2:00am. I remember reading David Eddings Belgariad series when I was in 6th grade. I loved those books to the point where I would ignore food and sleep to get back to them. I’ve never gone back and re-read them, though. Not then and not since.
A book from which you derive great pleasure is a special treat. If you have invested enough of yourself in a book to let it reveal a bit about your own hopes and dreams to you, the book itself can function like a time capsule. A bit of my 12-year-old self is in those David Edding books. I am certain that the Harry Potter books contain a bit of Greta’s self-understanding, as well. I was–and am, I think–wary of revisiting that time and place in my life for fear of disappointment, disillusionment, what-have-you. While the Belgariad owns a place of esteem in fantasy literature, would I like it if I read it at age 41? Would I have liked it at 16? I loved it at 12 and knowing that I loved it then is enough for me. Don’t push your luck; you may find out that book you loved in 8th grade is really poorly-written genre fiction. (Which reminds me, I read Christina Crawford’s tell-all memoir about her mother Joan Crawford, Mommie Dearest, in that same phase. Ugh. I can’t imagine revisiting THAT one!) Maybe your 12-year-old or 16-year-old self is not somebody you want to keep company with right now. Puberty is awkward and the desperate reading of early puberty sort of has that awkward tinge about it, too, for me.
All that aside, however, I have re-read some books. As a literature professor, I generally have to re-read (or at least skim and consult my copious notes) each book I teach each time I teach it. The same is true for things that I am writing about for publication. My professional reading does not often resemble the voracious reading of my younger years. I read slowly, underlining and making notes, and try to understand the system that structures the book. This reading is fun, too, but it isn’t the reading with abandon that I did as a kid.
There is, however, one non-professional book, or collection, rather, to which I return annually to re-read for pleasure. The Art of Eating contains MFK Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, An Alphabet for Gourmets, How to Eat a Wolf and other texts. As a writer she benefited from a treasure trove of experience from which to draw: a young ladies’ finishing school, marriage and move to France, unhappy married life, love affairs, moving to Switzerland, and what seem to be millions of fabulous meals–there should really be a biopic! Her writing is lovely, whether she is on about food or love of the interstices of the two. The Gastronomical Me makes me feel at home. I think there is a bit of my grown-up self in that book and, happily, it is one to which I do not remind turning again and again.