There are simply too many books to read; too many I have always meant to read and am ashamed that I haven’t (Vanity Fair heads that list and all of Trollope …) let alone the number appearing weekly that are there on my mental list to catch up with one day.
Yet for the past few weeks, I have been re-reading much loved novels instead of embarking on a new writer, a new title. I’ve been looking at my book shelves and taking down copies and searching for a particular favourite phrase or section where the writing is particularly extraordinary or captures a feeling so elusive that most of us are completely incapable of expressing it in words. And then, of course, inevitably, I turn to the first page and begin reading the novel all over again.
And I remember doing exactly the same thing last year when, around June, I began to re-read Anita Brookner all over again. Having originally read all her novels when they first came out, (and some of them I have read several times before) it was just as enjoyable reading them again. Re-reading novels where the plot line and story arc are already known means reading differently – as a writer, I suppose, looking out for how he/she makes the structure work, the characters come alive, and truly valuing the words and language.
People so often say that it’s a waste of precious time to re-read a novel. After all, they say, you know the story. Why read it a second, let alone a third, fourth or fifth time?
No-one says that about music. No-one says, Why are you wasting your time listening to that piece of Mozart again? Why listen to Elgar’s cello concerto? You know how it goes. You know the tune. The chance to go to a concert of the New World Symphony again? I don’t think so. No-one says, But you’ve seen Hamlet once. Why go again? You know who dies. Who kills who. A waste of money when there’s lots of plays you haven’t seen.
So why not re-read much loved novels?
It’s not just about the story, about what happens, after all.
Right now, I’m re-reading – for possibly the fifth or sixth time – Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.
If I could only take 8 books to my desert island, this would certainly be one of them. In fact, I think I would have to take two copies in case one of them got washed out to sea on a freak wave. For me, Cunningham’s language, his dexterity with words is unsurpassable. Yet at the same time, his writing reads as effortless – as if it is just flowing out of him rather than studied and contrived. And there’s always something new to marvel over, however many times I read The Hours. Yesterday, I came across the sentence that will echo with anyone who writes:
One always has a better book in one’s mind than one can manage to get onto paper.
But it is the last paragraph or so of the novel that for me exemplifies the joys and richness of his writing – as well as its essential truths so lucidly expressed – and why I keep returning to it. It’s easier to let Cunningham’s words speak compellingly for themselves:
We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep – it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself.
There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.
Heaven only knows why we love it so.
I am not sure why long summer days and light summer nights seem to encourage in me a nostalgia for what I already know and love. Once I am away from home, in Crete, I will begin to wade through my pile of new novels I’ve been building up for the hot weeks of July and August – although even then I’ve been guilty in the past of disappearing into a shady lemon or olive grove and re-reading for about the 10th time, George Eliot’s Middlemarch…
In the meantime, I have The Hours to finish, followed by – well, I think after that, a swift dip into Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway will be inevitable …!
Happy summer reading.