I’ve always been a voracious reader – yet in High School I took the requisite (back then) two years of English – and then never looked back (as you can tell by my horrendous punctuation skills). Although I loved reading books, I never considered English or literature as a major for college; or writing as a career. Besides my inability to spell made every paper I turned in look something like the survivor of a horrible beating (THANK GOD word processors and spell check was invented). And I never quite “got” classic literature. All those allusions to other things with metaphors – if you wanted to talk about something just come out and say it!! Please don’t ask me to understand references to mythology and allegories.
In 2003 BBC listed Brittan’s 100 most loved books. This list has turned into a meme where people tick off which books they’ve read and those they haven’t. It’s always interesting to see who’s read what, but what interests me more – are those who comment on re-reading a particular book over and over again on an annual, decade, or quarter of a century schedule.
I HATE rereading books. In the beginning, I didn’t think it was worth mentioning. But more and more writers talk about how they return over and over again to certain works – and are rejuvenated and encouraged each time they revisit them.
There are a few books I’ve read over and over and the older I get the more infrequently I read a story a second time. Going back I realize what I choose to re-read was pure escapism. The formula that appealed to me was specific. Either it involved a wealthy young woman living in/around San Francisco and facing a hardship, or it was a cowboy, a “knight of the range”, living life by his own peculiar code of ethics.
Just so you don’t get the wrong idea my book gorging was much broader than Zane Gray, Danielle Steel, and Stephen King. In fifth grade I read my first James Michener novel. Like most, I tore through The Chronicles of Narnia. However, I didn’t “get” the Lord of the Ring and struggled with “The Animal Farm”.
It wasn’t until I joined a neighborhood book group in Phoenix that I realized there was another level of reading, what is considered “literature”. I quickly recognized these books were somewhat related in style to “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Outsiders”, the only two works of literature I understood and remembered from High School.
I’ll never forget the first time it was my turn to recommend a book. I chose “Anywhere but Here” by Mona Simpson. I told the group it was this great story about a young girl and her mom who stop in Phoenix on their way to a new life in Los Angeles. Or that’s how I remembered the story. When the group read it – they were appalled. What a dark and sad story! Did I really like it? And I had to confess, when I’d re-read the book? It certainly WASN’T uplifting or happy – or even the same story I’d so fondly recalled.
Not long ago I started down the path of becoming a writer. It seems no matter where I turn authors list other writers who influence them the most. When I think about the stories I’ve liked the best (other than any book with lots of pages), I mention Wallace Stegner, John McPhee, Ferrol Sams, Wally Lamb, Joshilyn Jackson, and Zane Gray. Why? Because there is something about their writing that calls to me. For Stegner, McPhee, and Gray I’m willing to say it’s because they were teachers. They taught me about geography, geology, and “The West”. Sams and Jackson have introduced me to my southern home, and Wally Lamb … well the power of his characters just grips me.
I’ve become leery about recommending books and authors. You get that way when people screw their face up in consternation when you rattle off a synopsis. “The politics of food?” they say. Or, “A whole book about Brothels in Chicago?” Slowly they inch just a little further away. Talking rapturously about books tracing the Influenza Epidemic or the use of cadavors, is certainly one way to limit your social circle.
So, “where’s all of this going?” you’re probably asking yourself. (Indeed, I am wondering why I’m 650 words in and haven’t gotten there yet.) It’s all about re-reading books. Monday night I was hurriedly trying to finish up my writing homework. I was looking for the perfect phrase for a ranch foreman. I knew Zane Gray had used it hundreds of times in his stories, so I searched the internet. That’s when I stumbled upon an e-copy of “Light of the Western Stars”. Reading part of a chapter I was appalled at the dialogue. I think I was most bothered by Mr. Gray butchering words to make them sound “western”. Things like “Ho-tel” and “I jest am about to give up” raked on my ear so badly I despaired. Not only that … but as usually happens, within a paragraph or two, the whole story line came back to me. (or at least my mal-remembered version of the story)
What’s the sense in reading something again if you remember how it’s going to end?
So here are my questions to you tonight.
Do you re-read books?
If yes, why? If no, why not?
Me? I think I’m tired of being disappointed that the second time around doesn’t live up to my memory.
Ps: The word I was trying to find the “Ramrod”.