Let’s talk about books, baby. Or better yet, let’s talk about you and me and how we reread.
There are two novels I tend to revisit over the years. I have many books I wish I could reread, yes, but I am short on time (thanks, kid) so I mostly stick with new reads. But these two…oh, these two books I revisit in the hopes of understanding them better. These two books aren’t necessarily favorites, but they are puzzles. No matter how old, how whiskey-battered, how mind-boggled I get these two books have confused, haunted and intrigued me since I was a wee girl.
“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath and “Rumble Fish” by S.E. Hinton.
I feel like I’ll never be old enough to understand either of these books. Like maybe if I just keep reading I’ll stumble upon the real meaning, stuck beneath the surface, somewhere in the crowd. Maybe it’s because I first read them when I was 13, maybe I’m just a dum-dum, but whatever the reason, I’ve never figured either of these books out…or at least gleaned what I think I should. They have an elusive quality to them, a depressing kind of theme throughout, and something about these two novels continuously has stuck with me throughout my life, so much so that I keep returning to them.
Everyone has their own reason for re-reading a book. Love. Familiarity. Gun to their head. Take your pick.
And so, curious about the various motives for re-reading, I asked four writers to share which books they return to over the years.
It’s rare for me to revisit a book after finishing it. Once I finish a story I usually want to move on to the next one. Nevertheless, I do like to reread a good short story from time to time. I’ve got a few short story collections on my bookshelf, but the single collection that I always reach for is “Sugar Bush and Other Stories” by Jenn Farrell. Since discovering Farrell’s writing in a small bookstore while I was on honeymoon in Ucluelet, British Columbia, I’ve been captivated by her stories. Sugar Bush is brimming with female-driven coming-of-age angst, lust, and rage. The stories are raw and honest, dig right into the deep dark parts of everyone’s past. Some of my favourites from this collection are Farm Report and Chicken Shack, but my absolute favourite is the book’s title story, Sugar Bush, which is told via a girl’s LiveJournal, in perfect present to past nostalgic format. It’s a perfect collection, a nifty little book that I always flip through whenever I need a bit of inspiration.
I don’t re-read many books, but I find myself picking up “The Moviegoer” by Walker Percy at least once a year. I don’t always go cover-to-cover, but sometimes I do. Much of the book is set in New Orleans, where I’m from. As I moved around the country (and world), I always took the book with me, and I’d thumb through it when I missed home. Now that I’m back in Louisiana, I read it as a reminder of a time gone by, of a city that no longer exists. Books are a lot like old photographs that way.
Michael Gillan Maxwell
One of the books I revisited in 2016 was “Epic: Stories Of Survival From The World’s Highest Peaks” edited by Clint Willis. I read an interesting account in Poets &Writers from a writer remembering the years she studied with Peter Matthiessen, which sent me back to the excerpt of his signature work, “The Snow Leopard,” included in this anthology. All of the writing in this book is outstanding. Damn, those mountaineers can write! Another book I revisited was “Ozone Journal,” Peter Balakian’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning book of poetry. Peter Balakian was the facilitator/teacher in a poetry seminar at Colgate University in 2015. I knew he was something very special then, but when “Ozone Journal” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, I just had to dive back in there.
There are so many books I like to re-read, so I tried to narrow it down to a couple of top choices, or those books who seem to influence my work more than, perhaps, others.
1) Anais Nin – “House of Incest”
I devoured this around the same time I came across Nin’s Journals and have read, re-read, discussed and probed her material so much since. I always like the innate essences of her work, how as she puts it, she seems to write “from the inside out.”
2) Edward Gorey – “The Gashleycrumb Tinies”
This book, somehow came to me in my youth. Perhaps from my grandmother Meyer, who worked periodically in a library. It’s a gem, and one of those books that you read as an adult and think-this was written for kids? WOW! I liked it so much my original copy is tattered. But the idea that these kids are all, somehow, put to death (yes), sounds incredulous, and it is!
3) Grace Paley – “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and The Little Disturbances of Man”
More than any other books, these two somewhat exemplify why I love to write short stories. A master of compression, and like so few others, Paley can take the mundane or everyday life and make it sing, dance, lift off the page.