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!