On Reading and Rereading

I’m an inveterate rereader. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t be–that there are so many books in the world that I haven’t read, so what is the point of rereading books that I’ve read not just once but many, many times?

Anthony Trollope

Because there’s a lot left to learn, because it’s fun, because these books are not quite like friends, more like part of the inner landscape that I want to refresh. There are books that I read at least once a year: Great Expectations, Persuasion, a few others. There are some that are in regular rotation: the Palliser and Barchester series and Miss Mackenzie by Trollope, Anna Karenina (and this is the translation I like best), Jane Eyre, a few others. And then many that I reread now and again as the mood strikes: Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant and Bel Canto fall into this category. Last week I reread Wide Sargasso Sea because I’d read Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy, which in spite of the author’s protest to the contrary, is a modern retelling of Jane Eyre and about which I wondered, along with this reviewer, why this story needed “to be resettled in the late 1950s,” and even though there was much to enjoy, I really didn’t see the point of telling someone else’s well-told story.

Leo Tolstoy

So after rereading Wide Sargasso Sea, I wanted to read more by Jean Rhys. I read Smile Please, her unfinished autobiography, which has an introduction by the great Diana Athill (Instead of a Letter, Somewhere Towards the End, Stet: An Editor’s Life), and now I’m reading The Collected Short Stories. I’ve got a stack of novels at the ready for when I finish.

When I was in college, Alan Stephens used to talk to us about the happiness of reading by inclination, and Marvin Mudrick used to exhort us to read everything a writer wrote. I don’t remember students ever groaning nor complaining at this advice, but I do remember Mr. Mudrick telling us that it wasn’t like it was some horrible chore (my paraphrase), that we could pleasantly and easily read all of Conrad in a summer and be the better for it. What better advice could you receive as a reader? When you read everything a writer wrote, you come out knowing something worth knowing–about that writer, about that writer’s view of the world and people. About writing and about a particular style of writing and a particular voice. About yourself and your responses to writing. It’s remarkable, and you don’t have to do anything other than keep reading, which is in itself, as Mr. Mudrick said, a pleasure.

What else? I’m in the middle of rereading My Home Is Far Away by Dawn Powell, after recently reading Dance Night and Come Back to Sorrento. Last night, a friend told me I should read Powell’s notebooks and letters, so those are now on the list. A few months ago, I was reading Helen Oyeyemi (Boy, Snow, Bird, White Is for Witching, and my favorite, Mr. Fox) and then Ben Okri (The Famished Road, Songs of Enchantment) and Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, No Longer at Ease). I had to stop with the Achebe because it was just too much sadness all at once.

What are you reading? Or rereading?

Charlotte Bronte

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