What will you read over the summer? The newly announced Booker longlist? A selection of books from newspaper and magazine summer reading lists? A book that a Spectator columnist is taking on holiday? There are so many good new books to read – if not newly published, then at least new to you – and now is a good time to get stuck in. Why not, however, also choose something to re-read this summer?
There is something about summer and its particular feeling of stepping off the treadmill and slowing down that makes it ripe for taking the extra time to re-read a book. It’s a good moment to look back over what we’ve read and pick out a lucky book or two to revisit.
After all, how can we really know a book if we’ve read it just once? Think how many times we listen to a piece of music before we say we know it. What gives us the arrogance to feel so familiar with a book, so at ease talking about it, writing about it, recommending it to our friends after we’ve read its words just the once? Yes, there are a great many books in the world and we only have so much time to read them, but a brilliant book deserves the extra time for a second – or even a third, fourth or tenth – run. Just think how long the author spent writing it!
Choosing what to re-read is an inherently personal decision, but perhaps I can help by giving you a few different re-reading categories, each with its own unique pleasures:
1. Children’s books
It is rare that you utterly adore a book in the way that you did when you were a child, and no doubt you remember a few that made a real impression on you. I urge you to go back to them and revisit childhood’s lush imagination, full of quests and adventures, good versus evil, and exciting other worlds. I recently re-read Susan Cooper’s masterful The Dark is Rising sequence. Within minutes I was caught up in Will Stanton’s quest, but with adult eyes was also struck by how well Cooper wove English and Welsh folklore and landscape into her books. Ursula Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea was another good one, and now I am longing to re-visit Swallows and Amazons.
2. Young adult novels
I don’t mean The Hunger Games or any other books in the ‘young adult’ genre that has sprung up over recent years. I mean the books you read when you were a young adult – that difficult time of teenagerhood, when you outgrow the magical fantasies of a ten-year-old but aren’t quite ready for what your parents are reading. Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle was heavenly when I re-read it the week before I got married, drawing wonderful comfort from a coming-of-age novel just as I was about to pass rather a major milestone. Luckily that wasn’t when I re-read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, with its rather grisly portrayal of marriage. Then again, I can’t recommend re-reading Rebecca highly enough; it is utterly transformed by an adult perspective. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley is another treat.
3. Literary classics
I suspect many of us feel that we’ve ‘done’ the classics, having read a few of them at school and university. If any books deserve to be read more than once, however, it is these ones – the ones that have hung around for such a long time and been praised by so many great minds. This is the time to pick up your well-thumbed copy of Dickens, Austen, Hardy, Forster, Eliot (either of them), Bronte, and all those other authors whose black spines glower darkly from your bookcases. The slower pace of many classics can be a good match for the winding down of the summer months. (I hasten to add, if you are not yet acquainted with many classics then a summer holiday is a good time to become so.) A friend tells me she re-reads Forster’s A Room with a View every few years, and I am rather drawn by this idea of regularly revisiting a classic – a fine benchmark of one’s own literary development if ever there was one.
4. Recent great works
I see that there is a prejudice in this list for older books – ones that have either been around since your childhood, or rather a lot longer than that. This is also a good time to look back over your reading of the past few years and think about which books have stuck with you. When someone asks me for a recommendation – I work in a bookshop – I always ask them what books have they enjoyed reading. I’m surprised by how often I’m met with a blank face and little memory of anything at all that they’ve read. Take this chance to peruse your bookshelves and pick out any books you remember enjoying over the past few years. Perhaps there’s something about one of them that would make it perfect to re-visit now – a trip to the place where it’s set, or a particular moment in life that you’re also going through. Perhaps it’s just that you remember the book being very good but can’t quite remember what happened in it. Pick it up again now.
Re-reading offers a wealth of pleasures. This time round you know – more-or-less – what’s going to happen and so you can’t help but keep half a beady eye on the author, wondering how he or she will manoeuvre the story to where its headed. Released a little from the tension of plot, you are free to notice all sorts of other details which might have passed you by last time. The book stays the same, but we change. What strikes us now about a book, which went unnoticed before, is a fascinating benchmark of our own preoccupations.
There are many brilliant new books out there waiting to be read, but perhaps, over the summer, they can wait just a tiny bit longer. Put down one of those new books and pick up an old one instead.
Emily Rhodes blogs at Emily Books and tweets @EmilyBooksBlog.