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The Books We Come Back To

By posted at 12:00 pm on April 12, 2012 62

covercoverThe Guardian recently posted a collection of short pieces by different authors on the books they reread, and what they gain from the practice. There even seems to be a sort of tradition among writers and serious readers, related to these perennial rereadings. Faulkner read Don Quixote once a year, “the way some people read the Bible,” and isn’t there a place in the Bascombe books where Frank invokes the old idea that all Americans everywhere ought to make an annual reading of The Great Gatsby?

Perhaps Gatsby isn’t your choice for yearly touchstone fiction (although it is mine, and Mark Sarvas’ (see below), and was, in fact, the most commonly mentioned “rereadable” in that Guardian piece). Regardless, and no matter which one you favor, it shows adulthood and devotedness, I think, to try and get back to a book you love, every four seasons or so.

covercoverThat’s why I asked a few people about the books they reread, and why. Adam Ross, author of Mr. Peanut and Ladies and Gentlemen, spent a decade reading The Odyssey once a year. Matt Bell, editor of The Collagist and author of How They Were Found and the forthcoming Cataclysm Baby, makes a yearly reading of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which he first read at age 21. He says that, while almost every other book he revered back then has receded into the background of his personal canon, Jesus’ Son has gone the opposite way, and gained in its power to move him.

The aforementioned Mark Sarvas (whose blog, The Elegant Variation, you should definitely check out,) reads The Great Gatsby once a year — in fact, for 18 years, it’s been the first book he reads every January, and he always tries to do it in a single sitting. Changes in his own life have tracked these readings: he’s read it as a single man in his 30s, “very Nick Carraway-like;” he’s read it as a husband and a divorcee; he’s read it from the perspective of a writer and, more recently, as a teacher of writers. And, lately, reading it as a father, he’s found himself appalled at the way Daisy Buchanan treats her small daughter (although, frankly, there are very few characters in Gatsby whom Daisy’s treatment of couldn’t be described as appalling). After well over 30 readings, Mark’s never bored, never tempted to skim or skip, and the scene where Gatsby tosses his shirts on the bed always chokes him up. He also points out that a book not worth rereading is probably not worth reading in the first place. Hard to argue with that.

Speaking of “inveterate rereading,” The Millions’s own Lydia Kiesling has a slightly different approach to her touchstones. She has an ever-changing list of books she makes it a point to reread every one to three years. Currently, the list includes The Sea, The Sea, The Chronicles of Narnia, Till We Have Faces, Cloud Atlas, Of Human Bondage, The Berlin Stories, The Blind Assassin, Burmese Days, Possession, Lucky Jim, The Corrections, The Stand, and A Suitable Boy. She rereads these books in part because they’re “witty even when they are sad,” and because they manage to deposit her in another world with minimal effort on her part, which is as perfect a definition of great fiction writing as any I’ve ever heard.

coverSpeaking of Stephen King’s The Stand, my wife, Jennifer Boyle, makes it a point to reread that one once a decade. Considering the book’s monstrosity — both in size and subject matter — every 10 years sounds just about right.

Eric Shonkwiler, former regional editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books, reads Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream once a year. He likes the way it transports him to the Gulf, and for all the “standard Hem charms” we know and love. (Can we all agree to start using “Hem” as the favored adjective for anything Papa-related?)

coverFinally, Emily M. Keeler, The New Inquiry book editor and LitBeat editor for The Millions, reads Zadie Smith’s White Teeth once a year, usually in September. She discovered the book in the autumn of 2003, when she was a 16-year old high school student. Her favorites back then were all dead white guys (Orwell, Steinbeck, Hem, Maugham, Waugh) and she was in a used bookstore, jonesing for more Hem, when White Teeth’s colorful spine sparked her interest. It was the most exhilarating book she’d ever read at that point, and she goes back to it every fall, “in an effort to remember that feeling of discovery,” the moment when she became aware that “literature lives both back in time and forward through it.”

So which books do you all reread yearly, or biannually, or quadrennially, or decennially, and why? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Please share.

Image Credit: Flickr/Sapphireblue.

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62 Responses to “The Books We Come Back To”

  1. Penny
    at 12:40 am on April 21, 2012

    There are so many new books and old classics that I have not yet read that I do not re-read. I have a few touchstone books like The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, The Madonna of the Excelsior by Zakes Mda, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I do want to re-read all of JM Coetzee’s works up to Disgrace

  2. Penny
    at 12:46 am on April 21, 2012

    How could I have omitted my two childhood favourites Alice in Wonderland and Just-So Stories

  3. Derek
    at 10:10 am on April 21, 2012

    I’ve read both Galapagos and Slaughterhouse Five four or five times, and though I’ve “only” read Infinite Jest twice, I plan on reading it again next year to coincide with my 40th birthday.

  4. Amy
    at 12:26 am on April 23, 2012

    the two i can’t go long without re-reading, the two i pack first every time i move, are timothy findley’s Not Wanted On The Voyage and joan didion’s A Book Of Common Prayer. neither is particularly good for my emotional state, and yet.

  5. About Rereading the Books You Love | Sea of Reads
    at 8:04 pm on April 26, 2012

    […] Ted Jones on “the books we come back to” and why we should. Share this:StumbleUponDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  6. Beth
    at 10:46 pm on April 26, 2012

    I don’t reread books in general, but I am on my third go-round with Anna Karenina. I first read it at twenty, again at about thirty two, and now at forty four. Each time it has grown with me and the characters reflect something new back to me.

  7. Are You Well Re-read?
    at 10:04 am on May 18, 2012

    […] In this Guardian article, she tells us that she recently re-read Evelyn Waugh‘s Sword of Honour trilogy. The article also has thoughts from many other authors. For example, Ian Rankin likes to re-read Bleak House and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. John Banville says “each time we revisit [a favorite classic,] we see more clearly the cogs and flywheels of the writer’s technique behind what at first had been its opaque and burnished surface.” As an example, he cites The Great Gatsby. The article contains opinions about re-reading from many other authors, but if that’s not enough for you, The Millions has published a follow up article with still more opinions. […]

  8. Miss Pam
    at 9:07 pm on July 10, 2012

    Oh God, I was trying to find the scene in The Secret History I wanted to mention,
    the one in which there was something about a child, a fried chicken leg and Henry’s tie, but I came across the inventory of drugs in Bunny’s parents medicine cabinet, and now I’m sucked in again. I’ll start at the beginning: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

  9. ClassicsLover
    at 10:23 pm on August 13, 2012

    I would say Pride and Prejudice (or all Austen, really – she becomes wittier and more truthful to me with every passing year), Of Human Bondage (I stumble over a new, beautiful passage every time), and the Count of Monte Cristo (because it, without fail, transports me in a dashing adventure featuring so many complex story lines that find out something new with each reading).

  10. Timofhy Rogers
    at 1:58 pm on December 17, 2013

    “Blonde” A Novel by Joyce Carol Oates
    “In Cold Blood” A Novel by Truman Capote
    “She’s Come Undun” Wally Lamb
    “To Kill A Mockingbird” Harper Lee
    “A Christmas Memory”: A Novella by Truman Capote

  11. Lauren Cellucci
    at 12:29 am on March 21, 2014

    My favorite book to reread is William Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies”. With each passing year you learn more about yourself and you discover more innate evils that you did not realize you had at the last time you read the book. You find yourself better understanding certain characters, relating to their motives and understanding their reasoning. The line between right and wrong and good and evil shifts with every reread.

  12. Beniy
    at 10:33 pm on April 23, 2014

    The books I read and reread as a child and adolescent I continue now to read aloud each year to my fourth grade students, now going on 14 years: The Hobbit, The Neverending Story, Jennie (by Paul Gallico), Rikkit-Tikki Tavi, and Watership Down. They grow in power as I continue to grow.
    C.S. Lewis wrote a book on this called “An Experiment in Criticism” in which he posits critiquing readers rather than books, claiming rereading as a fundamental key for identifying quality readers as well as reads.

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