I’ve noticed that the topic of re-reading has been trending in various literary publications recently; from those who prefer to stick with what they know and love rather than wade into the ever-thorny wilds of new novels, to writers who re-read the work of idols to keep them on their toes and to improve their own writing. Hunter S Thompson reputedly typed out the whole of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell To Arms to try to learn what writing a great novel felt like.
It seems from these articles that a lot of writers or literary types have one or two books they re-read regularly, if not yearly then every few years. That got me thinking about my own re-reading. I do re-read from time to time, usually for one of two reasons; either I want to understand how the book is constructed, how it works (my own slightly limp Hunter S instinct I suppose), or it’s because for no particular reason I feel the need for something in the character or atmosphere of a book. The latter also happens with films and songs. I don’t have a regular roster of re-reading, and I’m very undisciplined.
Nevertheless, the re-reading fever inspired me and I decided I’m now old enough to take re-reading seriously (!). I decided it was time for me to re-read those books I’d loved as a teenager. I wanted to look again at the kind of books that change the whole world a little, tilting it from where you thought it was into a new place of fresh possibility and awareness. This is, of course, an entirely personal thing. For me the books that sprang to mind were Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Nacy Huston’s The Mark of The Angel, Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy books and The Odyssey. Quite a strange collection. I’ve only re-read the first two cover to cover so far, but I’m loving the experience. It’s like putting on an old jumper and finding it actually looks even better now than it did way back when. Both books have taken my breath away again, for entirely new reasons, both have inspired and challenged me as a writer, and yet both also unfailingly transported me back more than ten years to a world that seems a lifetime ago.
As Brideshead Revisited is all about returning – physically, emotionally, culturally, financially – and sometimes finding returning paths blocked, it seems a particularly fitting book to revisit itself. Whilst my journey has not yet spanned the timescale Charles Ryder’s does, I was struck in a way I could never have been at fourteen by the narrative of lost innocence, by the power of our youthful experience to both trap us and propel us, by escape and freedom as both a beginning and an end.
At its heart Brideshead is a novel of something lost. The world of the Marchmain family, and others like them, is lost, a particular world of Oxford is lost, youth is lost, Sebastian is lost, Julia is lost, maybe even Charles himself is lost. Only faith is both lost and found. Because of this I found myself feeling that Brideshead has a surprising place in the current cultural landscape. It is – inevitably – somewhat dated and classbound, but beyond that it speaks powerfully into the foggy place in which we find ourselves. We are a society waking up to things lost; money, community, accountability, dreams of democracy. The assumptions of a generation seem suddenly to have slipped, and fallen and broken to pieces. The Brideshead nostalgia is perfect for us now, but it is perfect because something deeper runs beneath it. There is always a return to Brideshead itself for Charles. The endings he faces are never the end, and the candle is relit in the little chapel. We can too easily fall into the trap of believing we are the first ones to be let down, the first to lose things, but we are not and we will not be the last. The challenge is to pick ourselves up and relight the candle – not for a return to what has been lost, but for the chance to let the lost things go and to look again at where they stood from a different place.
Re-reading is a part of this, and it can help us to re-imagine the stories of our future. Please do comment and let me know what you’re re-reading and why, or what you think our communal re-reading could be to help us come together and re-think our society for the future!
Hallo there, it’s always nice to be reminded that the world is full of fellow Wavians. May I say how much I enjoyed reading your article? Perhaps a follow-up would be nice if you’re still currently involved in re-reading the book; let us know precisely what feelings it evokes now as opposed to when you first read it. Personally, I’ve only read Brideshead once, which is sufficient to have made it one of my favourites. I don’t currently feel the need to read it again, perhaps because I’ve watched the ITV adaptation a couple of times over and, more or less, know it off by heart.
One book I re-read without fail every year is A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. I read it twice before ever having lived in Paris, once while there, and once since. I find it gives a little more every time, and is a very good book to read while on the move, due to it’s being trop pocket-sized. Otherwise, I have read Vile Bodies by our same darling Evelyn Waugh too many times to count, it being my favourite Waugh for the sake of pure entertainment. However, every time I buy a copy, I find myself giving it away to whoever I feel would benefit. A very close friend bought me an early edition recently, but even that I seem to have lent to a German!
If you haven’t already re-read Catcher in the Rye, but first read it in your teenage years and are now planning on reading it again, I’d give you a word of warning. I first read Catcher when, I think, fourteen and was moved in a manner of such peculiarity and intensity as I have rarely found in any book before or since. Catcher was such an event in my life as I cannot really explain now. I re-read it about a year or so ago and found myself largely unaffected by it, perhaps because I expected too much, or perhaps simply because I’ve grown into a different person. If you do plan on re-reading it, I certainly wouldn’t advise you not to -it is, after all, a masterpiece- but I would suggest you attempt to put aside any expectation you may have for it based on old conclusions.
Anyhow, this has been rather a rambling comment, so I’ll kill it dead now. Hoping this finds you well.
Thanks very much for the comment John, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I’m a big fan of Vile Bodies too, as you say not much can beat it for entertainment! As for Brideshead, it’s hard to articulate clearly – my first reading of it having been more than ten years ago – but I know that now I relate very strongly to that sense of the first beautiful things you have as an adult in your own world disappearing, or changing. I love the way in Brideshead Charles’ time with Sebastian hangs behind everything, and that is not to devalue the later experiences, not least his love of Julia, but it is something that’s always there. As a teenager I couldn’t have understood that feeling at all. At that time I was fascinated by the picture of the world of privilege, at Oxofrd and beyond, by the strange philosophical beauty of it, as well as by the impossible tangle of families trying to do their best for one another and yet inevitably hurting each other. I think it affected me a lot because it wasn’t simple, it was all looks and half said things and moments where change might happen but doesn’t, and that was a revelation as far as literature went and, you know, very real. I still love all that about the book, the way the plot evolves and the silences that exist between characters as well as all that they do and say. I like the global sense of it, but simulatenously its complete englishness. So many writers seem to write as though they’ve seen the end of something for good, and probably that’s a part of humanity, especially in the modern age, but Brideshead really does span a cataclysmic change and I think trying to understand that helps us to understand who we are, or I feel attached to it in some way. Another book which deals with this same era in a similarly enchanting way is A S Byatt’s The Childrens’ Book – have you read it?
Anyway, now I am rambling but there is so much to say on this book. Perhaps I’ll read it again just to try and marshall my thoughts! As for Catcher – no, I haven’t got round to it yet. I’m so interested that you found yourself unmoved by it – I think probably that must happen as often as not with re-reading things you read at such a young age. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes!