Why do I keep re-reading bits of old books?
Sometimes only your personal classics will do, says our weekend editor Anna-Marie Crowhurst
I’m going through a reading malaise. This happens every so often. I am a dedicated, daily, some might say, voracious reader and books are, basically, My Everything. But for the past couple of – ok, a few – weeks. Ok, a month. More than a month, actually, I have found it impossible to pick up and start a new book. It’s like the relevant part of my brain has somehow gone on the blink. I just can’t do it.
I got a beautiful first-edition hardback of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life for my birthday in September. I haven’t opened it. I acquired a lovely dusty second-hand paperback of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower in a bookshop the other week. Haven’t touched it. My Kindle harbours The Girls by Emma Cline, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl. I’m desperate to read all of these books. I know they’re all really good. But I can’t. Not yet.
Instead of devouring these fresh, exciting, possibly life-changing novels, I’m doing what I always do when a malaise like this hits – I’m re-reading treasured books I’ve already read dozens – in some cases hundreds – of times.
Slipping between the pages of these wonderfully familiar books feels as comforting as a cosy conversation with an old friend. I can open the book on any page, read for a bit, and put it down. As I read, I remember flashes of the old me that read the book for the first time, or the tenth time, or the last time, which was possibly in the bath, with a large glass of Malbec. Some of these books I’ve been re-reading for more than 20 years.
In our world of new, now, next, keeping up with the amazing debut author, or the new hot genre, feels like an essential. To turn your back on this, and waste your finite time on earth re-reading an old book seems wasteful. But I can’t help it.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. I usually turn to the Betsey Trotwood and Mr Dick section because it makes me laugh out loud. Every. Single. Time.
The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi. Any bits with beautiful, narcissistic Charlie in, especially when he becomes a punk.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. The joyous section at Oxford: Plovers’ eggs, Aloysius the bear, gillyflowers under the window; wondrous Anthony Blanche.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. I usually can’t stop myself re-reading the whole book, often in one sitting, always crying at the end. “‘It is you – is it, Jane?’”
The Magus by John Fowles. The part where he meets sexy Alison at the party; his arrival on luscious, verdant Phraxos.
Tess of the d’Urbevilles by Thomas Hardy. The ‘maidens-in-white-dresses-pastoral-idyll’ bit at the beginning, before it all goes to shit.
During my current malaise, I’ve already ticked off Copperfield and Buddha from this list, and even writing about Brideshead has made me want to steal a look at that again. Meanwhile, the books I’m yet to try pile up on my bedside table begging me to consider them. Which I will do. Soon. Just not quite yet.