Tuesday, August 20, 2013

To Read or to Re-read

Reading List from Half my Life Ago

To read or to re-read, that is the question. Or so it was when I found myself giving to a man half my age a book I myself had read half my age ago and could not remember well, except that I must have liked it a lot to have placed so many penciled exclamation points in the margins while reading. As soon as the book left my hands, I envied the man his first experience reading this book, but soon realized that my old concern that there were certain books I would never again have that first reading experience with may have rendered itself, while I was too busy getting old to notice, moot by the sad fact of my lately not being able to recall what I had for breakfast, much less a novel I read when I was 25.  

Books I Have Yet to Read (except for Goethe's Young Werther, Been There, Done That)

There are so many books I have yet to read. Too many. But now it seems there are also an equal or greater number of books I have already read but need to re-read because I have forgotten them, or first read them as quite a different person in quite different circumstances. There are now 12 boxes of these books in a storage room waiting to be donated or discarded. Of 1000 books I once owned, 400 were left behind on my last move, and now I have cut an additional 350 from the herd. The 250 books now in my apartment do not necessarily represent my favorite or most significant reads of all time. They are mostly editions I doubted I could find again, or have been signed by the person who gave them to me, or for some reason would not leave my hands and go gently into that good cardboard box.

What Made the Cut, Bookcase One
Fortunately the book I gave to the young man made the cut, which is good because not a week after it made that cut I found myself trying to quote it and needing to consult it and then give it away to just the right person at just the right time. It must have remembered me better than I remember it, but books are like that sometimes, entering your life – or remaining in it – with impeccable timing. I have never been one to give my books to other people. I’ve done it twice this year and if I had all the time and space in the world I would keep those 12 boxes as a ready supply for 350 such future instances. But my moving house process was such a strange combination of intense focus and stupefied detachment, I am not quite sure which 250 books are with me here, much less there. I am sure I will look soon for one of those “surely I did not send that one away!” books and find it absent, or find some “what was I thinking?” books given prominent shelf space. I accept that whatever is here is here for a reason. And maybe for a re-reading too.
Like the book I just gave away, which will be for the man something entirely different than it was for me, and has some passages in it that were so well written, that on at least two occasions I actually can recall to this day, I was in such a state of reader’s delight and writer’s envy, I had to put the book down and call my mother just to read them to her, just to share the joyful burden. That is an experience worth re-living. There have been so few books like that in my life, ones you have to put down because they are so physically and intellectually stunning you don’t know what to do with yourself, you feel made and unmade, you need to take a break, you want to make it last, but you keep eyeing the closed book on the coffee table because it calls to you with its remaining promise in a voice you can’t resist because it is your own voice.

 What I'm Reading Now

I wonder if I will have a read like that again, the way one wonders at a certain age whether all kinds of experiences can ever feel as breathlessly intoxicating, as irrationally irresistible, as destined and delirious. As your memories of experiencing such moments increase and then fade, leaving behind an attitude of wistful muted recognition when they again present themselves, do you require thrills of greater rarity and intensity, or can you hit the restart button on your emotions and get the old heart to leap again as it did half its life ago?

Some hearts are born old and grow young. The reason I collected all those books was that they did all my living and loving for me. They knew things about me that I knew without having actually experienced them. They were my travels, my romances, my tragedies, my follies, my lessons. Half my age ago I had done nothing, gone nowhere. The novel I was working on, as of course I would be, was about a recluse retiring from the world at 25 surrounded by books and collecting quotes and so completely living the lives and thoughts of others her physical self fades bit by bit and is replaced by that of whatever author she happens to be reading or pondering, which, in New York City, turns out not to be an unmanageable affliction, as her infrequent outings are hardly noticed, whoever she happens to be at the time, wrapped up in a dark 19th century coat with collar turned up and a hat pulled down over her eyes.

What Made the Cut, Bookcase Two

The problem with the novel, which I called “Driftwood : A Life in Fragments,” was that it could not end well, and frankly, as a great believer in the power of the written word, I did not like that I was, by writing this novel, writing a version of myself I was in danger of becoming, which makes for a great plot line but not such a great life. I abandoned the novel. Most of it was transcribed quotes, which would have presented difficulties with copyright anyway had I tried to publish it. I turned my energy and attention to living my own life. And it turned out I had plenty of real travels, romances, tragedies, follies and lessons to experience. In a way they were like re-reading a great book in which you find the self you knew you were all along, for while I was never surprised by anything that happened, I was still astonished. 

Perhaps the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this post is that it is better to read than to re-read. There will be time decades from now to sit in an armchair and review my book life and my real life. For now, I want new adventures, new astonishments, in books and in life. Joys so great they have to be shared. Things you call home about and say “are you sitting down? You are NOT going to believe this.” 

This post is dedicated to G on his travels. Bring me that book back read, and some even better stories of your own.


  1. I am a reader rather than a writer. And find it very, very hard to give books away. To other people or to that cardboard box. So the house groans at the seams, and the bookshelves are stacked two and three deep. I have decided that I will keep books that I am going to reread. For comfort, for amusement, for inspiration. And so many books fall into that category. And a book which has nothing to say to me this time (or nothing I am prepared or able to hear) can sing at a later opening...

    1. Hi EC! I never did think I could give books away. If I lived in a proper house, whatever the size, and had some funds to apply, it would be one of those creations whereby every bit of space would be allotted to bookshelves. But my life has become a lot more itinerant than I ever expected it to be. At least the 12 boxes are still in my same zip code and not yet donated or discarded...I can sense them there half a mile away. There could yet be a reprieve. Packing them up brought back such memories - perhaps not of the actual plot line, but certainly the feel and smell of the book itself in my hands and who I was when I first held it. Your house must be amazing with all those books for companies! Next to cats, books are something no home should be without, in whatever number. Hope all is well with you, and keep on reading! Good writers are only as good as the readers who bring their words to life in their minds and hearts.

  2. TT/G - I think you have answered to question - any reading is the answer as long as it is for you and nourishes you whether it is an old favourite or something new. At times a start a book but choose not to finish it because life is short and I don't need to read what might nourish another but not me. Sounds like a good thing to be sifting through the library - F and I do this at least once a year so thart the library only holds what we want, want as a reference or know we will re-readf - the rest are shared and donated - and it doesn't stop us from rebuying an old favourite we have given away if the time and desire is right. Go well in your new ventures. B

    1. Barry, I was actually thinking of you and F when pondering the giving away of books - I seem to recall you talking about this. Books are such amazing things, not just their contents, but in the many and varied ways people keep - or don't keep - them in their lives. For some just one given away is hard, for others like you books flow in and out, for me, I seem to be either collecting them with abandon or sending them away in equally outrageous numbers! One thing is clear - they are part of our lives - inner and outer. Hope you both are doing well!

  3. Hi G - I often times find myself a different person when re-reading a book; or being reminded of the me I was then; which can be sweet or sad. Good books will always speak to you no matte how familiar you are with them, or how long you have left them without re-visiting. As B said, we do share books and leave them on our travels, and donate them to book sales and so on; but there are always some special ones that stay with us!

    1. Hi F - thanks for your comment! It is sort of magical when you re-read something as a different person, such a layered experience, with the previous reading and former you present at the new reading, and if it is a good book, part of the fun is noting the things you missed before and why. It is so much more than just enjoying a nice story or fine phrasing - reading is an interactive experience involving the writer, the book, the reader and the histories of all three. So good to know that there are still enough people who get this!