Over the years, I’ve acquired lots of books – some of them nonfiction, but many more that are fiction. For a time, I had as many as a thousand volumes in my home library. I eventually began the process of culling the works, donating away those I felt certain I would never read or re-read. On the one hand, it was difficult having to choose which volumes to let go. On the other hand, I found it rather liberating.
Of course, I can always go to the library to borrow something I mistakenly parted with; and if the library no longer carries it, I can probably buy it used online. But I realized that this process still left me with hundreds of books I want to read or re-read.
For most of the books I had possessed for many years but had never read, I discovered that I really didn’t want to read them. I had kept them out of a sense of duty – maybe they’re classics, or maybe someone with similar taste told me I should read them. But not every book appeals to every reader.
For example, I struggle with some of Shakespeare’s work. I struggle with the old English of Chaucer and Tennyson. I struggle with the slow-moving pace of literature from a hundred years ago. Sure I’ve read Hamlet and Othello, King Lear and MacBeth, and a few of the comedies, but I can’t say that I loved any of them and I have no desire to read some of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works.
Nor do I have any desire to read a book simply because it’s a classic. I’ve read too many that left me falling asleep, having to go back a few paragraphs or even a few pages to recall where I was. I’ve re-read a few, hoping that the first time through I simply wasn’t grasping all the nuances or I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate what the author had done. Yet I can’t think of a single time when I enjoyed the book better the second time around. I may have appreciated the skill that went into writing it more, but I didn’t enjoy the experience of reading it any more.
My tastes haven’t changed sufficiently to justify re-reading something just for its historical importance.
That still leaves plenty of books (including a few classics) that I want to re-read, books that I consider modern classics or that I loved for the way they made me feel – Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert’s Dune series, Len Deighton’s Bernie Samson series, Mick Herron’s Slough House series and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy are among the series that hit my sweet spot.
And there are plenty of standalone volumes I love too – Shane, Watership Down, Trout Fishing in America, The Orchardist, Hands of My Father, A Gentleman in Moscow, Swing, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and too many others to name.
There’s something joyful and comforting about a book that reaches to the gooey center of our being, that manipulates our emotions without contrivance or shameless melodrama.
When I’m re-reading a really good book, I tend to forget about time, about the problems I have waiting at work, about health issues and relationship issues and financial issues. I’m transported to another world, where I get to watch again as others fight their noble battles, where I can urge them on to success, generally remembering the outcome, but still wanting to relive the intricacies and subtleties that drew me to the stories in the first place.
Great books are like old friends; it feels good to hang out with them even if they’re not perfect, maybe because they’re not perfect. There may come a day when I don’t feel this way, and if that happens I’ll be sad. But for now, you’ll have to excuse me. An old friend is calling.