Re-reading

I’ve just finished re-reading The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson for my book group, and thus it will be filling my 1982 slot in A Century of Books, but I didn’t want to repeat myself by re-reviewing it since, like Mr. Darcy, my affections and wishes are unchanged – so, if you would like to, go and see why I thought The True Deceiver was so wonderful back in 2009.  In short – the novel is fascinating for giving an insight into Jansson’s feelings about writing for children, the relationship between two very different women is slightly sinister but also poignant, and the writing is (as ever with Jansson) beautiful and sparse.  If you’ve not read Jansson before, go grab this, it’s wonderful.

But I wanted to talk about re-reading instead – and how that changes the way we feel about the books around us.

I’m always fascinated by how a bookcase (or ten) of books is not a neutral entity to their owner.  To anybody looking into my bedroom, they are simply bookcases of books.  To me, each spine is either unknown territory – exciting, but mysterious and vague – or a place I have already wandered.  Isn’t it funny how a (say) off-white spine can go from being something about which we know almost nothing, maybe just the lead character’s name and the genre, and (after having read it) the sight of it is a trigger for all sorts of memories and emotions.

Amongst those tried-and-known books on my shelves, there are a select few which don’t just hold memories but which hold definite promise.  That’s different (of course) from the promise suggested by a recommendation, or even by an unread by a much-loved author.  They are, instead, the books that I know I can return to time and again, and know precisely what emotions they will conjure; how wonderful and stimulating the writing will be; how happy (or moved, or admiring, or amused) the words will make me.

Tove Jansson’s beautiful books are among that number.  So is The Diary of a Provincial Lady, the novels of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf… basically anything in my 50 Books list.  They are not so much books to be re-read, but experiences to be re-captured – and to be built upon.

Which brings me to my question.  This is all well and good in theory – and certainly worked with The True Deceiver, about which I felt exactly the same both times around – but there are some books which disappoint when re-read.  There are others which get much better – but, since I rarely re-read a book I was lukewarm about the first time around, I seldom discover these.

Over to you for this bit – which book was the most disappointing re-read?  And which the most surprisingly rewarding?

My answers, respectively, as Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey and One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes.  The first went from being a book I loved abundantly to one I liked a lot, but felt oddly unexcited about; the latter (as you can see in my review) took the exact opposite trajectory.  Since I still rather like Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, you can see that I’ve never had a hugely disappointing re-reading experience… those promising spines have kept their promise.  You?

13 thoughts on “Re-reading

  • January 14, 2014 at 10:58 pm
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    Both mine are children's books. Most disappointing was At the Back of the North Wind by George Macdonald, which I wanted to love when I started re-reading it – I didn't, and got stuck, but it may prove retrievable yet. Most rewarding were all the Arthur Ransome books, which I quite liked as a child, and now love and re-read frequently.

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    • January 14, 2014 at 11:34 pm
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      I sincerely loved At the Back of the North Wind and, while I've recommended it to many, I have yet to re-read it. Sad to think the 2nd time through wasn't as good :(

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    • January 18, 2014 at 2:47 pm
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      And I have read neither of those authors, despite growing up loving watch Swallows and Amazons! Maybe this year will be the year I finally read it…

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  • January 14, 2014 at 11:33 pm
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    Most disappointing re-read – Hard Times by Dickens
    Most rewarding re-read – Heart of Darkness by Conrad

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    • January 18, 2014 at 2:48 pm
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      Well, I loved Hard Times the first time and hated Heart of Darkness, and have re-read neither… it seems like I'm all set up for both these examples!

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  • January 15, 2014 at 3:34 am
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    I'm not much of a re-reader, but I have read Possession by A.S. Byatt three times now. The last was a couple of years ago and, though I still enjoyed it, it didn't have the magic it did when I read it in my late teens.

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    • January 18, 2014 at 2:48 pm
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      I've only read that once, when I was a teenager… maybe I shouldn't re-read! I do love the film, although that's not a very popular opinion I believe…

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  • January 15, 2014 at 9:11 am
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    Almost any re-read of Colette is a success for me, though like "Anbolyn" I rarely re-read anything (other than textbooks!). One disappointment that springs to mind was "Changing PLaces" by David Lodge. I loved it the first time I read it and its sequal "Small World", but on re-reading a decade later "Changing Places" struck me as very dated where as the latter book still gives me pleasure.

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    • January 18, 2014 at 2:49 pm
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      I think this will FINALLY be the year that I actually read something by Colette, after years of encouragement from you and Victoria. And I should read some Lodge too – but maybe just once!

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  • January 15, 2014 at 11:12 am
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    The trouble with re-reading may depend on whether the novel is more plot-driven or character-driven. If plot-driven, you already know the ending, so the suspense factor is missing, whereas if the story is more character-driven, a re-read may be like meeting an old friend again. i used to re-read more than I now do – too many books to read and enjoy for the first time, not enough time to re-read.

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    • January 18, 2014 at 2:50 pm
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      That's a very, very good point, Jaycee! That's why re-reading murder mysteries wouldn't really work. But then there's something like Jane Austen's novels – so many twists and turns in them, but somehow you can re-read them on a different level, knowing the end results, can't you?

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  • January 15, 2014 at 1:40 pm
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    That's a tricky one, Simon. Re-reading is a knotty subject because our views and outlook change over the years, so we can never be sure how we will respond to an old favourite. Also, we can't recapture the thrill of a first read. The one I was most apprehensive about re-reading was Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveller" because I loved it so much first time round – and fortunately still did on a re-read! As for let-downs, I'd agree with the Strachey; but my strongest experience was when I was at school and we studied Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie – I loved on the first read, and hated it when I re-read it, after we'd analysed it to death! Go figure!!

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    • January 18, 2014 at 2:51 pm
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      People keep mentioning the books I really want to read – the Calvino especially, as its been on my shelf for a few years. And I'm glad to hear it stands up to repeated readings! I think old favourites are more likely to stand the test – but I worry about the ones which I don't think I should bother re-reading which MIGHT just be the books I'd love hugely the second time around…

      Reply

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