It’s almost the middle of April and I’ve read something like thirteen or fourteen books this year, a number I would previously have easily read in a couple of months, and of those thirteen or fourteen books about half of them have been books I’ve read before, some of them books I’ve read more than once before. Re-reading has become an attractive proposition, in fact re-reading is almost the only way I can approach fiction at the moment. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps there is simply more risk in fiction, that fiction has a greater range of getting it right or wrong for this particular reader and too often it falls into wrong. Or perhaps I am just a little wary right now of reading about messy lives, about anger or sadness or cruelty which so much of fiction seems to be about. I have wondered about that, whether I’ve simply become more fragile or vulnerable and my reading choices are as much about protecting myself as they are about the other things I’ve written so much about: connection, meaning, slowing things doing and making them count. I’m not sure. I know last year was hard, it was hard for so many people, and there are storms to come and when you know a storm is coming it is best to hunker down, to rest and restore yourself, to reinforce your walls and retreat to a place of relative safety while you still can, before the storm rips a hole in your shelter.
I have thought this, but I also know it is not quite that straightforward. I am wary, too, of the lure of novelty. In a world which seems to offer us everything, in which we can climb to the top of Everest both in person and via reportage or plumb the bottom of the ocean, there are so many temptations and I have been tempted and tempted and each new temptation seems to lead me away from rather than towards where I want to be. But it is not just a negative reaction, a rejection of the clamour of all those books I’ll never get around to reading. It’s a positive choice too. When I was a young reader, a teenager say, I would often read books over and over; there are stories which stand as a backdrop to certain periods of my life which I will never forget, which have become ingrained within my memory as strongly as any ‘real’ experience ever has. Re-reading adds a dimension to a book. Not all books, though. Books are written in many different ways and with many different purposes in mind. Sometimes I think about books as like a pond which has iced over. Some books are made to be skated over. You skim the surface of them because there’s nothing really underneath but more ice, but it doesn’t matter because the surface is so smooth and slippery that you skate over it without effort and it is incredible fun and nothing about it makes you want to look underneath your feet because it’s exciting and diverting exactly as it is. Some books make you stop and look at the fish frozen beneath the surface, but if you chip away at the ice you find there’s nothing really there and those are, perhaps, the disappointing ones. And then there are books that you skate over and then skate over again, and then you stop and look and you chip into it and find the ice chips away and underneath is this vast, black intriguing body of water full of fascinating things that you have to investigate; and then there are some in which there is a voice that calls to you from the deep, and you chip away the ice until there is a hole that you can plunge yourself into and down you go, the water filling your lungs and you know you never ever want to come up for air. Some books only reveal themselves in this way. Sure perhaps you can see something below the surface even if you read it only once, but taking the plunge is the only way to really let the book do its work on you.
I have thought of re-reading as a risk-free exercise, but it is not without risk. Every time I open a book to re-read it, I wonder if what I remember of it, not just the story but its impact, will remain or whether it or I will have changed and it will become a disappointment. Sometimes you just read a book at the right time. What if I decide that the character that meant so much to me is really wooden, unbelievable or cliched and I simply didn’t spot it last time? I will have taken a fond memory and sullied it by over-examination. Maybe I’ll look back on my earlier self and think I was an imbecile. There are worse things. It is, perhaps, better to be flexible and wrong than to be wedded to a false ideal, though false ideals often prove so very comforting.
Comfort. It comes back around to this. There is comfort in revisiting something that stirred or resonated with an earlier version of yourself. It creates a connection, a thread, a continuous narrative that links the younger me to the me I am now. Sometimes I wonder if the idea of an enduring ‘I’ is something of a fiction in itself, that I only believe I am the same person I was ten years ago when in fact that person is long dead. Re-reading unlocks a redundant memory and reinforces that thread. I’m not sure if it matters whether it’s real or whether it is just a story I tell myself if it helps to get me through the days which might be otherwise so much tedium or stress or mundanity.
Re-reading has been a pleasure, it has been comforting and deep and I no longer feel that I am ‘missing’ something by not having read the books that the other bloggers or readers around me are reading. Instead I feel I have gained something. It is proving hard to articulate what that is, but I begin to wonder if I could pick a core of 50 or so books and only ever read those for the rest of my days. Would I really miss anything? A new experience, perhaps, but that only rings true if I fail to see how re-reading is itself a new experience, a new encounter every time. John Fowles made the point in The Tree that every choice, every progression, is a trade-off of something and we often forget to acknowledge what we’ve traded against the choice we did make. This is true, too, of reading. Every choice is a trade of one book over another, whether that is a book you’ve read before or not. It is the same choice. But when choosing to re-read we choose to repeat, re-enter, reabsorb, re-encounter, to dive deep until the words have seeped into our very being and it’s no longer possible to see where you end and the book begins and that feels, right now, like the most positive choice I can make. It would be hard, I think, to select a mere 50 books and commit to them but suddenly it also seems possible. Have I really changed so much, or am I am merely uncovering a truth I knew as a child which distraction and choice and the lure of ‘free will’ have diverted me from? I have no answers, only more questions. I am sinking into the water and I am wondering if swimming up and thinking I can breathe is really the right thing to do.