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 firstname.lastname@example.org
For now all that’s left is to wish you happy reading…and possibly…even happier re-reading.