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Good Letters

stacks and stacks and stacks of books

If you’re going to make a habit of re-reading novels (as I do), then it helps to have a pretty poor memory (as I do).

My re-reading seems to fall into two categories. First there are the novels I’ll re-read every ten years or so. These are the super-long ones that draw me inexorably into their special worlds: worlds that I can happily return to night after night for weeks or even months. (I do my novel-reading in the evening before bedtime.) Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset’s magnificent trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter is one of these, weighing in at 1124 pages.

Another is A Suitable Boy, by Indian novelist Vikram Seth (1349 pages). And of course the Russian treasures: War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov.

After about ten years, I can’t remember much of the plots of these books. But I remember that I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. So I can re-settle into these immense novels with the assurance that I’ll find them great company, but also the pleasure of following the plots almost afresh. (I do remember one creepy scene in A Suitable Boy, where the young protagonist Lata hears her host slip into his daughter’s room at night to rape her. A benefit of re-reading is that when I come to this scene, I know to skip over it; it’s just too disturbing.)

These re-readings are like returning to a country I haven’t visited for a decade. For Kristin Lavransdatter, it’s medieval Norway. For A Suitable Boy, it’s India of the early 1950s, as the country adjusts to independence and to the creation of Pakistan. For Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, of course it’s nineteenth century Russia.

And then there are The Iliad and The Odyssey, in my favorite translation: Robert Fitzgerald’s. Not novels, of course, but they’re in my every-decade re-reading category. Not because I forget the plots; how could I? But I re-read for the richness of reconnecting with these classic epics, of giving my mind and heart the treat of lusciously poignant passages. Like the scene in Book 24 of The Iliad where Priam comes to Achilles’ tent to beg for the body of his son Hector, whom Achilles has killed, and they both (winner and loser) grieve together over their losses in this terrible war. Or in Book 23 of The Odyssey, when Odysseus has returned home after twenty years and has killed the suitors who’ve been plaguing his wife Penelope, but she tests him to make sure it is really he. The passage where she’s finally convinced is beautifully moving, no matter how often I re-read it.

Sometimes, though, a re-reading turns out to be disappointing. Recently I re-read James’ Portrait of a Lady, but—to my surprise—found the story too painful. Isabel Archer’s increasing suffering after her fateful choice to marry Gilbert Osmond made my heart sink… then continue to sink till the novel’s end, when I found my heart smashed to bits on the floor. (Either I’d forgotten this, or my pain-tolerance has lowered.) George Eliot’s Middlemarch was another disappointing re-read. The problem here wasn’t the plot but the prose. It’s just too ponderous.

My other category of re-reading is typified by my relation to Jane Austen’s novels: I read them fairly often, about every five years, and I’ve read them often enough that I do remember much of the plot, and certainly the endings.

The special pleasure of re-reading, in this case, is being able to watch how Austen moves her characters along, and to luxuriate in her sentences without being distracted by wonderings about the plot. I know that Elizabeth will end up with Darcy, and Emma with Mr. Knightly; what’s delightful is watching how Austen puts obstacle after obstacle in the way of these pairings until near the very end. And also there’s the delight of savoring the rhythms and wryness of Austen’s sentences.

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

Or this, after Elizabeth has let Darcy know that she’ll finally accept his marriage proposal:

“The happiness which this reply produced was such as he had probably never felt before, and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.” (Even keyboarding here this quietly witty sentence makes me smile.)

Other writers whom I happily return to every five years or so: Barbara Pym; Anne Tyler (especially her middle books — Breathing Lessons, Saint Maybe, Ladder of Years, A Patchwork Planet, Back When We Were Grownups); Elizabeth Gaskell (especially North and South and Wives and Daughters). I return to these novelists for their engaging (sometimes quirky) characters, their intelligently propelling plots, their affirmations of life. Oh, and yes, I confess: Anne of Green Gables, which I have my childhood copy of–so the extra pleasure of re-reading it is holding in my hands this physical sense of continuity threaded through my entire life.

But I don’t want you to think that I only re-read. After all, you can’t re-read unless you’ve first read. My favorite first readings from the past decade include Jo Baker’s Longbourn; Kathryn Stockett’s The Help; Tara Conklin’s The House Girl; Michael Crummey’s Sweetland; and (though not a novel) Jill Lapore’s Book of Ages, on Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane.

These are all books that I enjoyed immensely — but, somehow, I doubt I’ll want to re-read them.

Well, maybe after another 15 years.

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