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Revisiting Old Friends

Posted by Jen Robinson on August 17, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Classics
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21WXW4GJCQL._SL500_AA140_.jpgLast 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.

ForgottenDoor.jpgI 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.

HarryPotter1.jpgI'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?


Thomas writes...

Those were lovely words and very true. In many ways much like the wonders of flipping through photo albums of treasured times in the past.
For us, it is one of our favorite things to do and it makes life in some odd way have more depth. Not so in the moment.
It is also a reason for our daughter I love to have the memories of books on her shelves. ( Sorry, Kindle folks).
Many a time already in her 10 years of age, does she look through them and it is always a spot where she and her friends land as they chat about many a thing. Just a comfortable place to be.
Briefly, as the digital age of ebooks grows larger it will be an interesting balancing act. I know at our daughters school teachers are using them in a trial phase to see how they can assist students.

Our next door neighbor is reading all the child classics to his daughter through the Kindle. I guess this young girl will just have to open a digital file and she will get that warm special memory :) Maybe. I suppose the best answer is that there will always be room for both mediums. This has been shown to be true repeatedly with the capabilities of new technology.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

I agree with you that there will be a place for both media, Thomas. I love having physical copies of my childhood favorites to re-read. But I've been listening to audiobooks on MP3 for years, and I enjoy the convenience of that, even though there's no physical reminder.

But I do think it's great that your daughter has already had that experience of revisiting favorite books. I'm sure that you're helping her to form memories that will last a lifetime!

Charlotte writes...

I love blogging, and constantly discovering new books to read, and getting books in the mail, but I do miss that re-reading...I feel I haven't really taken a book into my heart unless I've read it two or three times, and so there are books in my home, that I think I will re-read but haven't yet, that are still uneasy strangers, and really have no business being in my bedroom (where I keep the books I love).

Have you ever read Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge? I have read this one every year or so since I was very young, and I bet you would like it lots...

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

I know exactly what you mean, Charlotte. As a blogger/reviewer, I feel a tiny bit guilty when I take time out from reading the new books to re-visit an old book that I practically know by heart. But I'm always glad that I took the time to do it, because revisiting these books makes me so happy. Like, you, though, I don't feel like I've done a good job lately of creating new favorites, in the sense of re-reading relatively current books. I was just thinking the other day that I'd kind of like to re-read the Harry Potter books again - but who can possibly find the time for that?!

Thanks for the recommendation. I have not read Linnets and Valerians, but I trust your judgment, and will get it onto my list.

Pam writes...

One the (many) great things about having kids (and nieces) is that you get to enjoy the books of your childhood all over again. I loved sharing some of my picture books favorites with my kids - "The Monster at the End of this Book" never grows old. As they've grown up, we've read some other favorites together and it's interesting how some hold up over time and some don't.

The book that feels the most like an old friend is The Hobbit and I'm always happy to read it again. I also have a real soft spot for Jenny and the Cat Club, Raggedy Ann, A Little Princess, and (of course) Winnie-the-Pooh.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

I've definitely enjoyed sharing books with my nieces, Pam. Funny, though, I never got into The Hobbit. But I adore A Little Princess. I swear she helped shape my personal moral code. But that's a topic for another post...

You've already piqued my interest in Enright, and I've added that book to my wish list on Amazon. How exciting to have a lovely new read awaiting me!

But Jen, I so know what you mean about these old favourites. That's exactly what happens for me when I read my dog-eared Georgette Heyer's or L.M. Montgomery's, or Elizabeth Goudge as Charlotte (above) writes. I know great slabs by heart and I almost writhe with pleasure to be re-reading the words again. I know a non-book lover would probably not understand "writhe" but I think you do. It is just a toe-tingling, grin-worthy, luscious WRITHE!

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

I'm pretty sure you'll like Enright's books, Susan. And I am right there with you on feeling this way about L.M. Montgomery and Georgette Heyer (some of the books, anyway). I think that my "brought tears to my eye" and your "writhed" stem from the same source. You just can't help but be happy (and they are tears of happiness in my case, for sure), when you visit these books again. (Well, there are tears of sadness, too, like when Matthew ... well, you know).

Robin writes...

Hi Jen,

I so agree -- see my post about rereading earlier this summer (which in turn was a response to a Newsweek article) here:

I have to go read the Enright book -- I'll be reading it for the first time! (definitely a gap I need to fill).

happy reading, and re-reading!

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

I'll definitely check out your re-reading post, Robin. Not sure how I missed that. But yes, Enright is a gap in your reading history, one that should be remedied (even if it's not the same, reading an older book for the first time as an adult). Thanks so much for the link!

Jennifer writes...

This is a GREAT post! I have loved giving my children the books that I read when I was a kid - the ones that hit me the most are the picture books, because those pictures had such impact on me when I was little. I recently saw a copy of the old Disney book, The Penguin That Hated the Cold, in the waiting room where I was working, and I picked it up and had to go to the bathroom, for the tears it brought to my eyes. Just a cute little book with a cute little story, but the imprints of his water bottles thru the snow, and all the other pix, just made me FEEL about 5 years old again!

I, too, listen to audible books, and I can attest that listening to them year after year is as good as reading them - no pictures to remember, but the voices stay in my head. I re-"read" all of my Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Narnia, and the Dark Tower series by Stephen King (yes I have eclectic tastes!) first thing each year - and the stories are new and exciting as well as warm and familiar each time. And my youngest is enjoying Narnia, Young Wizards, and the children's bible audibly now, and loves them as well!

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thanks for understanding this post so well, Jennifer. I don't have this experience with picture books, so much, because I'm cursed with a poor memory (so, I don't remember reading picture books for the first time, for the most part). But I can completely empathize with you having to sneak off to the bathroom because of the tears that a particular book brought to your eyes. I used to do a lot of walking and listening to audiobooks - I vividly recall having to avert my head from oncoming pedestrians while listening to the end of Anne of Green Gables.

I haven't done much re-reading of the same audiobooks (I don't commute, and can't walk as these days much b/c of a knee thing) - I'm glad to hear that it works so well for you. And here's to eclectic taste. Stephen King's The Stand is one of my regular re-reads (though I wouldn't have the patience for that on audio - too long), right alongside Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. I've found that I enjoy listening to series titles on audio, as long as they keep the same narrator. Because I do get that coming home feeling. (I like mysteries, and am currently immersed in the Sookie Stackhouse series on audio).

Thanks for taking time to share your comments here at Booklights!

Dawn writes...

My teenage daughter is always re-reading her favorite books! I find them in every room of the house, REALLY!

I love to re-read too, but now that I'm blogging, it's hard to find the time. There are so many great books, especially when you add YA books into the mix.

There's nothing like sitting down with a favorite book, though. Lately, if I'm having a particularly rough day, I'll turn to a special picture book. It does the trick every time!

Thanks for a great post, Jen.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

I'm glad that you liked it, Dawn. I think I was more of a re-reader when I was younger, too. Blogging definitely makes it harder to re-read - you feel a bit guilty, with all the new books waiting. But personally, I find it refreshing to take occasional re-read breaks. I've never been as much of a picture book person, but I love that reading a special picture book works for you during rough days. I may have to give that a try!

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