To read, and read anew: books to love over and over again
I got into a Goodreads conversation with a fellow book clubber about books that can be read over and over again, and whether or not they maintain the same magic as the first reading.
I contend that most books lose their luster after a second read, mostly because we already know the plot and the ending, but a few actually do get better after multiple reads. Kids books, for example, are wonderful to reread as an adult. So often new information is revealed, jokes are finally understood, and even seemingly tame story lines- Roald Dahl’s novels come to mind- appear darker the second read around.
So much of the magic we experience in books is created or defined simply by where are in our lives. I wrote on my Goodreads shelf “Books that Changed Me” that both American Psycho and The House of Mirth struck me so deeply based on where I was physically, and what I was going through in my life. As in the case of The House of Mirth, I was knee deep in a financial mess and therefore I identified strongly with Lily Bart’s plight, whereas had I actually been financially sound, I don’t think her story would have resonated with me in quite the same way. I did have the chance to reread the novel a few years ago, and while the characters are still beautifully and wittily written, the tone felt more melodramatic and Lily Bart a little more frivolous and stubborn to me than upon the first reading.
However, there are still some books which I have had the utmost pleasure in rereading over and over, and the magic behind the novels has increased ten-fold through the years.
Here is a shortlist of personal read again favorites:
Katherine Neville’s The Eight and The Magic Circle
The Eight, in particular, is an experience like no other. I’ve probably reread her novels (for many, MANY years there were only three. I see she has a new one that came out in 2008. Must read!) three or four times. Part historical fiction, part mystery, part high-tech intrigue, and part epic romantic adventure, these novels captivated me to no end and never lost their thrill. The only time I EVER talked to a stranger sitting next to me on an airplane was when I spotted a copy of The Eight in his seat pocket. I was desperate to find out if he was loving it as much as I had!
I happened upon a used copy of The Magic Circle in my mid-twenties, and having forgotten that I had already indeed read the novel, I voraciously dove into what I thought was an overlooked Katherine Neville. Half-way through I realized that it was a reread, but I was so engrossed that it didn’t even matter. The novel took on new meaning to me. Believe me, it is that gripping!
Part of what is great about Neville’s books is that they hold up incredibly well despite having been written more than 15 years ago. The Eight was written in the late eighties and is about a woman living in the seventies, so after a couple of rereads in the late nineties and early 2000’s you would expect the book to seem dated and irrelevant. Not so. The novels are rich and complex and with each reread I discover new aspects of the plot that I didn’t fully grasp on the first go-around. Each book is composed of characters so grounded in the fundamentals of human nature that you hardly notice the setting and background details, such as computers, transportation and fashions, which have definitely evolved over time.
Because the books are epic adventure stories in nature, it is possible to still feel the same zing of excitement with each new read. Exotic locales, simmering romance, and cloak and dagger intrigue never really go out of style. I feel almost comforted every time I reread The Eight. I know the plot and I know how the story ends, but it is the journey that I want to experience one more time.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series
Ok, disclaimer: I have read every Harry Potter novel at least three times with the exception of the last in the series, for obvious reasons. I mean, it’s the last one. Finito. Fin. The End, no more. I can’t seem to bring myself to close that series forever. Actually, that’s not completely true: I did reread the last chapter of the very last book a couple times, but mostly to convince myself it was truly over.
In some ways you almost have to reread these books in order to keep the story straight and re familiarize yourself with the characters and all the magic that is happening. But that is not the only reason I fell head over heels enchanted with these books enough to read again. Each volume gets funnier the more you reread. As is the case with kids books, a lot of the humor is lost on the very young. I don’t have much of an excuse; I started reading them as an adult. Still, the story got progressively more poignant and at the same time, humorous, with each new read.
Also, if you start again at the beginning of the novels and read through to the end you discover the brilliance that is J.K.’s writing. She writes each volume according to reading level, as she understands her child audience is, in fact, growing up as they read the books. By the end of the series, the writing is more mature, the characters more conflicted and nuanced, and she definitely knows that by now her audience can handle more complicated plot threads.
I’m so delighted to rediscover her writing style and great skill with each new read.
Judy Blume’s entire Young Adult catalog, in particular Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Starring Sally J. Friedman as Herself, and Just As Long as we’re Together
My childhood is full of reading and rereading the same books again and again. I started reading Judy Blume around age 11 and continued to read her novels until my early teens, probably as late as 14. Judy Blume wrote specifically for pre-adolescent and pubescent girls, and amazingly her novels stand the test of time because they never stray from the issues that have plagued young girls since the beginning of time: getting their period, falling for boys, and dealing with peer pressure.
Trust me, when you are 13, the above is all you care about. I must have read Are You There God? more than ten times from age 11 until 13, hoping and waiting for my “magical” girl moment. I reread this book in particular mostly for reassurance that what I was feeling was perfectly ok. If Margaret went through it, then everything will turn out for me in the end, I told myself.
The novels got better the more I read them, and they became more pertinent to my life. Also, I reread them for clarification: what I didn’t understand at age 11 became more clear at age 14. With Just As Long as We’re Together, I remember rereading the chapter where Stephanie and Rachel go to the dance because I could NOT understand what type of top Rachel was wearing that was described as “an upside down lampshade”. Since I was at that age when somewhat risqué clothing was an option for me, I was dying to copy the look. And I was also figuring out my place with my friends too. Judy Blume’s novels became a refuge and a learning ground for what would be expected of me as I turned into a teenager.
Starring Sally J. Friedman, on the other hand, was a novel where I identified so much with the main character that I read the book over and over again for simple inspiration. I have a memory of when I was first told we were taking a trip to Florida and right before we left I thought to myself ,”Now I can go meet my sister Sally”. Silly, yes, but I must have read that book at least four times before our trip. She was spunky yet shy, and had a great imagination. I not only thought of myself like her, I wanted to actually be her.
As a lark, I reread Are You There God? as an adult. Actually, the parent’s side story is what is more clear than ever, probably because I’m reading it as someone who could now understand where they are coming from. It’s a great revelation because it made me realize that this book in particular is not necessarily just a young adult novel anymore. I think anyone with young daughters who are “reaching that tender age” could learn a lot from these books.
Mil Millington’s Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About
I love this book, and I love to reread it, for one simple reason: it’s utterly hysterical. Whenever I finish a particularly heavy book and I need a “brain break” from anything too complicated before I go to sleep at night (prime reading time), I tend to pull out this book. And I laugh every single time.
I first came in contact with the novel- known hereafter as TMGAIHAA- at a yard sale in which the seller was a former manuscript reader for a publishing house. I’m not quite sure she had any right to sell these yet-to-be- published editions (lots of typos and errors in these books, but I still count the box I found of these gems a gold mine), but TMGAIHAA was among them and as I was told, “A great read”.
A “great read” is a bit of a stretch. I haven’t read the actual published version so certain details and plot points might have ended up hammered out in the final version, but the copy I read is basically a memoir/blog entry/rambling complaint based on life with his live-in girlfriend Ursula, who is also the mother of his children, with a side-plot involving stolen goods and the Chinese. It doesn’t actually “read” per se, but rather the story moves along like a screw-ball comedy caper feature film à la “What’s Up Doc?” or even “Romancing the Story”.
And I mentioned it was funny. Not just funny- absolutely rip-roaring funny. If you ever get a chance to read Mil Millington’s website www.thingsmygirlfriendandihavearguedabout.com, you will see what I mean, and all of that stuff on the website is completely separate from the book. But you will grasp the author’s tone that is the same in the book: frenetic, chaotic, whip-smart, and completely snarky. The book never fails to give me a great chuckle when I’m in need.