I recently had cause to think about my relationship with reading when surgery for recurrent corneal erosion left me unable to use my eyes for a couple of days. I was grateful to have the distraction of audiobooks but they were no substitute for the pleasure of holding a physical book and it reminded me how back in 2015 I wrote about a different variety of reading disorder. That one lasted for five years and its onset coincided with the end of my first marriage. Books had been my constant companions up to that point but the upset drove my pleasure in reading into deep hibernation and it would not be coaxed out. I knew I had lost something precious but that bit of me was broken and I had no idea how to fix it. The timing was perverse as it happened just when I would most have appreciated escape from the jagged wreckage of everyday life and meanwhile the pile of peevishly discarded books kept on growing. One thing that surprised me was how even when I was happy again it took several years to get back to normal. I’d never heard anyone talk about this before but since then other people have told me they’ve had a similar experience after illness, bereavement or divorce.
In the end, the thing that shifted my block was re-reading an old favourite, The Light Years which is the first volume of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. I adored these books in the nineties and as soon as I started re-reading I was drawn back into a world of engaging characters and delicious mid-twentieth century details, sprinkled with humour and suffused with the author’s exceptional ability to write from a child’s perspective. I read slowly and tentatively at first, and then with heady pleasure until five novels and two thousand pages later I reached the end of the series and sobbed because Elizabeth Jane is now dead and so there will be no more. That was when I knew I was cured.
Since then I’ve read hungrily, grateful to have found what I’d lost for so long and I make much use of both the local city and county libraries. They are impressively stocked which is fortunate as every week brings new recommendations from friends, attention-grabbing reviews, and random discoveries online. A conservative estimate puts the number of new English language novels published every year at around one hundred thousand. With such an intimidating deluge of potential entertainment it’s tempting to plough ever onwards soaking up novel novels but as I discovered in recovering from my reading block, re-reading can be rewarding and it’s a shame to completely neglect it in favour of new works. As children we read books over and over again—for me it was The 101 Dalmatians, Little Women and Five Go to Kirrin Island—but as adults we tend to prioritise exploration.
My thoughts on re-reading were consolidated recently when a writing tutor recommended The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. It’s an entertaining and informative read—the authors are bibliotherapists and suggest a range of novels for every imaginable situation including guilt, exhaustion, existential angst, a lack of confidence, curing xenophobia, being a mother-in-law, constipation, moving house, and being in hospital. But the key thing I took away from it was the authors’ enthusiasm for re-reading. They recommend creating a shelf of ten favourite novels and re-reading them every five years or so. Put them all together on a designated shelf, they suggest, and they will trigger good feelings every time you go past.
I like these ideas very much and so have given thought to the content of my own favourites shelf. There were six candidates that immediately jumped out and settled comfortably onto the shelf, secure in my long-held affection for them. Others had to contend with being compared, contrasted and gradually eliminated. It was a tricky task and I considered making the list longer—after all ten was just a number that had been suggested by someone else. But there was a discipline in having to stick to this number—it forced me to think about why I had included each one. Then there is the reality that if I am to stand any chance of re-reading these books once—twice—maybe three times or more, if I live long enough, then the shelf cannot bear too many volumes. Otherwise it will further complicate that original dilemma of whether to seek new works to admire, or to revisit old ones.
One of the first contenders to be given serious consideration was John Lanchester’s Capital because it reminds me of my South London years. Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate is one of the few books that makes me laugh out loud, and both David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars and Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal hold poignant memories because they take me back to the precious hour after lunch when my three eldest children were at school and the youngest was in her cot having a nap. Then I would sit on my blue sofa and read in guilty, delicious escape from domesticity. And now that the youngest child is a thoughtful adult I recently cherished one of her recommendations—Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Either of Ian MacEwan’s Atonement or Graham Swift’s Last Orders could easily have made the leap onto the shelf based on the beauty and fluency of the writing, and in Notes From An Exhibition, Patrick Gale seduces his readers to Cornwall which I have grown to love in recent years while walking the South West Coast Path. A bang-up-to-the-minute contender was this year’s Booker winner, Damon Galgut’s The Promise which offers insight into South Africa where my husband grew up, and I have fond, raw, teenage memories of reading Far from the Madding Crowd at school. Then there was Agatha Christie’s 4.50 From Paddington which marked a juncture. At the age of eleven I spotted it on my big sister’s bookshelf and settled down to read, aware of this being the first time I had properly engaged with a book intended for adults. These are splendid books that I would recommend to anyone but in the end they were all rejected in favour of ten other books. These ten novels were each etched into my memory but several were no longer to be found on my bookshelves—either lost, loaned, or returned to their owner— and so I bought a copy of each of the missing ones and now all the members of my little blended print-family sit together on their own dedicated shelf. Until last week this space was occupied by boxes of Covid tests so the new arrangement feels like a considerable improvement.
I wanted my selection to be a true expression of books I love regardless of what anyone else might think, and so in making my choices I tried not to distort genuine preferences by seeking some kind of balance. I did my best to put genre, subject matter, classics vs modern, literary reputation, and author gender out of my mind when weighing up one book against another and so it was entirely unplanned that I ended up with an equal number of male and female writers. The settings are undeniably skewed towards the country where I have always lived but they do lead readers into the midst of London’s Chinese and Jamaican communities as well as transporting us to modern India and jazz-age America. There is, however, a complete absence of historical fiction, crime, Victorian classics, and science fiction which even though I’ve enjoyed books in each of those categories, does reveal something about my taste at its most fundamental. I’ve also ignored non-fiction or the choices would have been impossible.
In the same way that I’ve heard people say, ‘These are my people’ when talking about friends, then these are my books. This blended print-family is in part an expression of identity and I love the fact that if you create a collection it will inevitably look quite different from mine. It’s a pleasing thought too, that like wine and friendships, the very best novels get better over the years. But the collection is not set in stone and as I continue to read then some might get replaced. In fact I’m certain that’s something to aspire to. Who would want their enthusiasms to remain static for decades? Life is about growth and discovery and books give us the opportunity to meet people we’ve never met, see places we’ve never been, and explore new points of view. And one of the most interesting things about rereading is to see how treasured books stand the test of time. When first encountered you will inevitably have known less about life and have lived less of it.
So here for what it’s worth are the titles to be found on my favourites shelf:
The Light Years: Elizabeth Jane Howard
A Fine Balance: Rohinton Mistry
After You’d Gone: Maggie O’Farrell
The Hundred and One Dalmatians: Dodie Smith
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont: Elizabeth Taylor
The Remains of the Day: Kazuo Ishiguro
The Great Gatsby: F Scott Fitzgerald
The Course of Love: Alain de Botton
I’d love to hear what you might put on your shelf, and why. As always you can leave a comment on the blog or if you’re having trouble posting you can email email@example.com
For now all that’s left is to wish you happy reading…and possibly…even happier re-reading.
9 thoughts on “I’ll Read That Again”
Ooh that is a fun blog and a pleasure to read. After re-reading some of my old favourites I’ve thrown some in the recycling – they’re not even fit for the charity shop, so not all old favourites stand the test of time. It’s the bin for you, Portnoy’s Complaint. And everything by you gets pulped, Chaim Potok. Everything by you, D H Lawrence, stays on my favourites shelf along with Anna Karenina and The Plot against America.
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Interesting to hear you say that trauma left you unable to read. I thought I would share with you a similar experience when we were living in Greece. My husband’s colleague was killed, gunned down by terrorists. It was a terrible time for us all and resulted in my husband having bodyguards. I was in the middle of doing an open university module about Athens in the fifth century BC and having to do an essay a month. After the tragedy, I couldn’t read anything. I got on with life but couldn’t read a single paragraph. The OU were very good and said if I completed the quota by the exam that would be OK. Fortunately my ability to read came back and I was able to write the 3missing essays in the fortnight before the exam. It is an extraordinary experience
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That sounds like a dreadful experience and I’m not surprised it left you unable to read. I guess the thing is that you need to be able to concentrate in order to read and lose yourself in the words but when your mind is full of other things that becomes very difficult or impossible. I’s so glad that you recovered in time to write your essays. Sounds like an intriguing course.
Thanks for the blog, Lynn, thought-provoking and smile-inducing as ever. I love fiction too and am torn between fiction and non-fiction; there’s so much fascinating stuff out there to find out about!
You’ve got me thinking about my own top ten … so much so that my first five are now in place on a key bookshelf, soon to be gradually joined by five new friends. Further, I’m now motivated to think ahead about what I want to read from the library before going, and reserve items in advance, rather than turning up and taking pot luck. There are so many books of widely varying genre and quality that I’m going to take some time to choose something worth all those hours of reading.
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Poor old Portnoy, I’d better see whether I still want his company after all these years! Good call on DHL, Claire.
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Somehow I seem to read fewer books now than ever I did. I suppose it is due to playing so much bridge during lockdown. However I agree that there is something very comforting about re-reading an old favourite. The books I remember as memorable are the three I read for the first time when I was hospitalised while pregnant with first child. These were Gone with the Wind, The Godfather and Rebecca. Another title that sticks in my mind is Noel Barber’s Sinister Twilight. I read it when we lived in Malaysia and scared myself to death in a house surrounded by jungle alone with two small children. I found it on a friend’s bookshelf a few years ago and wallowed in memories when re-reading. One of my son’s says re-reading a book is a waste of time but I totally disagree. He, when planning a gap year train journey through USA many years ago, asked me for recommends of books to read en route and I suggested Gone With The Wind which he poo-hard. I put it in his bag and he adored it when he finally picked it up. Probably not terribly PC these days but a cracking story.
Lovely reflections. Thank you. I’d forgotten about Rebecca. That is one I love too. Oh so many books to read and love!
I just came across your post on linked in and couldn’t resist joining in especially as you had one of my favourite books on your favourites shelf! So After You’d Gone by Maggie O’ Farrell has always been one of my favourites although I think I even prefer ‘The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox’. I met Maggie briefly at a book day and had a quick chat with her about both. I actually could have both on my shelf! I’m going to read the last chapter of After You’d Gone again I think as it is just so beautiful.
So my faves! Really difficult isn’t it.
Sebastien Barry – Days Without End
Unexploded – Alison McLeod
When Will There Be Good News – Kate Atkinson
A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Husseini
The Other Hand – Chris Cleave
Jumping the Queue – Mary Wesley
I have to say I did love both Normal People and Life After Life and in fact think I enjoyed the TV adaptations even more which is normally never the case. My mother-in-law handed me down some of her Elizabeth Jane Howard books which she loved but I have never got around to reading. I will now! Thank you.
Take care Pat xx
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This hit home for me as I am once again in enforced Book Purdah, the loss of my darling Pa having given me the concentration span of a fruit fly. I, like you, know that this too shall pass, thank goodness.
My childhood favourites were also Enid Blyton and Louisa May Alcott – but the book I engaged with prematurely was Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Her fury and rejection of the injustices of the age made a deep impression on me. I have re-read it many times, and there’s always a surprise nugget I didn’t notice before. Young Jane’s rage and passion hit home to this day.
CS Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles grabbed my childish imagination and took me to worlds beyond this one, and I have read some of his adult works and enjoyed their intelligence and thoughtfulness.
As an adult I found books that spoke at different times in my life. Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede is a fascinating glimpse of the contemplative life of an enclosed order of Benedictine nuns (blame it on a Catholic education even though I’m a Protestant!). Who’d have imagined such a rich narrative in a world which, to the outside eye, is regulated into enforced dullness?
If I need to wrap myself in a literary duvet then pretty much any one of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances fits the bill. Historically absolutely accurate, she sparkles with intelligence in every line. I read them when I’m under the weather or in need of a stress busting escape.
Capital/Sweet Sour/Notes on a Scandal all spoke. Others for me have been CJ Samson (in both Tudor and Spanish Civil war forms). P.D James for intelligent whodunnits and Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy.
But for now it’s cookbooks and Charlie Mackesy until my reading brain is allowed back in. I hope it won’t be too long.
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