The rewards of revisiting literary loves
WORD FOR WORD:The first real book I ever read was CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when I was five. As soon as I finished the book, I immediately started reading it again. And when I finished it for the second time, I started to read it again. Finally, my parents, perhaps worried that I’d never read anything else and would spend the rest of my life knocking hopefully on the backs of wardrobes, handed me a later Narnia book, The Silver Chair. I read a bit of it, was disappointed by its general gloominess and lack of Lucy, Edmund et al, and returned to The Lion . . . yet again.
Of course, I soon began to expand my literary horizons, but I never lost that desire to return to a beloved book. I did, however, quickly refine my methods. After the initial The Lion . . . binge, I’ve always left a decent gap between rereads. It’s not just to give me enough time to forget details of the plot. It’s because once a book becomes overfamiliar, the charm of the writing is dulled. I would happily read EM Delafield’s witty, subversive Diary of a Provincial Lady on a yearly basis, but if I did, her voice would lose its sparkle. So I space out the rereads, which allows the book to stay as fresh and as vivid as the first time I read it, more than two decades ago.
Of course, I’m still constantly discovering new books and authors. But why, when there are so many books in the world that I haven’t read yet, and my pile of never-read books grows ever larger, do I keep guiltily returning to old favourites? It’s because rereading, if you leave those decent gaps, is a unique pleasure. It’s because sometimes you crave an authorial voice and a fictional world in the same way you crave a type of food, and because of the joy of returning to something familiar and trusted, of recognising why we loved it in the first place and falling in love all over again.
And books change over the years; we respond to different elements of them as we get older. When I read A Room with a View as a teenager, I thought it was just wonderfully romantic; when I read it in my 30s it was still romantic, but I saw it as a much bolder, more radical and less cosy book.
Of course, this also means that some books will disappoint you, especially books you loved in adolescence. But when it works, a reread is just as rewarding, in its own way, as reading a book for the first time. Maybe it’s time I tried The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe again.