Last week Susan wrote about the gift of reading a wonderful book for the first time. She asked readers: "What book would you love to be able to read again for the first time?". This post inspired a host of thoughtful and (sometimes) nostalgic responses. The next day, Pam wrote about three of her favorite summer books and asked readers to share their favorites. These posts, in part (along with a post by Charlotte from Charlotte's Library), inspired me to re-read one of my own favorite books, one that is for me the very essence of summer: Return to Gone-Away by Elizabeth Enright. I previously listed Return to Gone-Away as one of my favorite children's books, and just reviewed it here. Re-reading Return to Gone-Away last week made me think about something that is, in a way, a mirror image Susan's post. It made me think about the joy that comes from re-reading an old favorite, one in which each character and scene are already familiar.
I was only a few pages in to my re-read of Return to Gone-Away when it literally brought tears to my eyes. It wasn't the content of the book that made me weepy-eyed. It's that I was so happy to be back reading this particular book that my emotions just bubbled over. I can only think of a few books that evoke tears from me, just from being themselves. Return to Gone-Away is one of them. Two others are The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key and Listening Valley by D. E. Stevenson (my all-time favorite book, published for adults). (You can read about some of my other favorite re-reads here.)
I love everything about these cherished books. I love the language, especially when I read particular sentences that I remember verbatim. I love the characters, and the way that they remind me anew of the things that make them special. I love re-visiting my younger self, remembering earlier reads of the same book. I literally give these books a little pat on the cover when I see them on my bedside table - I'm unable to rein in my affection. And why should I? These are the books that made me who I am.
When I read new books, I generally require a considerable amount of plot. The more complex and suspenseful, the better. But I'm reminded by Return to Gone-Away that the books I already love, the books that I read over and over again, don't need suspense at all. The re-reading experience, for me, is all about revisiting beloved characters and settings. It's about visiting old friends. It's about a personal connection between me and the particular book. I don't want the opportunity to read these particular books again as if it was the first time (as Susan discussed). Part of what makes these particular books special for me is the incremental appreciation I've built up over dozens of readings.
I like smiling when Mrs. Blake says, on page 1 of Return to Gone-Away "We'll have to think of a new name for that house right away", because I already know the outcome. I like already knowing whether or not Julian will find the missing safe, and whether or not the rope in the old dumbwaiter will break. I like shaking my head on page 9, because Foster's behavior is just so typically Foster.
This affection for particular books is more than just taking comfort in familiarity (though that's part of it). I don't think that you can just pick any old random book off the shelf, and re-read it once a year for 20 years, and have the book become meaningful to you (though that would be an interesting experiment). I think that there has to be something already in the book that makes you want to re-read it every year. Something that connects you to the book. For those books, the ones that you love enough to revisit throughout your lifetime, the connection just gets stronger every year.
This isn't to say that I disagree with Susan about the wonders of reading a great book for the first time. I envy every single person who hasn't read The Hunger Games yet, because they still have it ahead of them. And I know that sometimes childhood favorites don't hold up at all. But I also think (and I'll bet that Susan will agree) that there's something very special about re-reading a favorite book, one that is loved, in part, because it's so familiar.
I'd like to believe that everyone has books like these, books that they can turn to for comfort reading on bleak days. Books that remind them of where they came from, and what mattered to them when they were younger. Parents, what books will bring tears to your children's eyes when they're 40, because they're so happy to be back reading the books again? Will it be Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone? The Penderwicks? The Lord of the Rings? Clementine? Will the teens who have read Twilight seven times already re-read it as they get older? Will reading Twilight when they are 60 help them to recapture that feeling of falling in love with a book at 12? I hope so. Because me, I feel blessed to have my favorite books as part of my life. What do all of you say?