New thrills of rereading old books

By Tom Lamont

For every person devouring a new best-seller, someone else is rereading an old favourite. But why do books, and authors, keep luring us back, asks Tom Lamont.

Take time out to get lost once again in an old favourite. Photo / Thinkstock
Take time out to get lost once again in an old favourite. Photo / Thinkstock

It usually starts with a pretence of steeliness. Not the whole thing, I'll tell myself, reaching for the ruined paperback. One chapter, a favourite passage, then I'll wedge it back in with those books begun but not yet finished; the dozens more bought or inherited that I honestly mean to open, to get to all of Dickens. I'm a chronic rereader, mostly of novels, and it is a habit as coiled with guilt as it is with pleasure, because every go-round with a favourite is also another time I haven't read Bleak House.

The trouble is, one chapter or passage is never enough. The same qualities that seduced once seduce again. I've had watertight plans to parachute in at one of Brideshead Revisited's irresistible mealtime scenes, read, and get out again; plans ruined by the compulsion to flick back a page, a chapter - gah - back to the prologue. The Go-Between is my private demon. An innocent reminder, I'll think, how L.P. Hartley phrased his famous opening line ... suddenly it's midnight and I'm 100 pages in and Ted is oiling his shotgun.

The affliction struck early. For me, as for many kids of the 80s, novels were pitiful things if not written by Roald Dahl, and aged 10 or so I met the unusual dilemma of exhausting an author's catalogue. With Matilda, The Witches and the rest devoured, only Dahl's intimidating stream of adult stories and the latterly published Esio Trot were left. I thumbed through Trot, dismayed that it didn't have any obvious chocolate factories or marvellous medicines, instead a couple of moony pensioners and a tortoise.

I supposed I could try it. Or (the option seemed amazing, possibly illegal) why not restart a favourite?

I haven't gone back to Esio Trot yet, and every reread since that first shaky reach for Matilda has been tinged with the same concern: that to refuse the new is to break some elemental code of literature. That to reread is lazy, maybe even impolite. So I've faked anticipation when somebody spots the paperback I'm carrying and says that I'll love Cecil when he appears in A Room With a View or that Any Human Heart gets very, very sad.

I've thought about folding the dust-jacket of a pristine Mrs Gaskell around a battered Martin Amis, just to avoid a friend or relative asking: "Again?"

Examples mentioned here are personal. The novels that yoke the rereader are not universal - they're not always good. Some of the motivations and satisfactions, though, must be shared.

It is time travel, a reliable way to reawaken feelings sparked by a book at first encounter. George MacDonald Fraser's series of Flashman novels summons for me university, when I picked up one in a stranger's room, skimmed a paragraph, and realised with excitement and dread that my set-text reading plan would now implode. Nineteen Eighty-Four brings back a thrilling first sense of professional life and the daily commute, Orwell's novel finished while travelling across town for work experience, aged 15.

Salinger's slim book of stories will forever be a ski-trip coach that smelled not unpleasantly of toffees; Laughter In The Dark a summer spent dumped and misanthropic and grateful for Nabokov's mean wit. Howard's End is the time I met my wife, opened every year since.

Security is a factor. Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson was funny when last picked up and can fairly be expected to have stayed that way on the shelf.

No need to gamble on new characters or a new set of circumstances - abstentions that for some would void the chief appeal of fiction are, for the rereader, a lure - because that massive investment of hours can be made without risk of disappointment.

The last page of Steinbeck's brick-sized East Of Eden will unfailingly thrill me.

And I sweat through Tom Ripley's police interviews every time. Actually, those nervy near-arrests in The Talented Mr Ripley are a bit of an exception. Suspense is the first thing to die on a reread, and the experience is better for it. Familiar with the story, the plot on rails, the rereader can relax, look around and whistle at the scenery. I first read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead racked by an irrational fear that the old and ill narrator was going to croak on every next page. Only during a second and third read could I properly absorb Robinson's gentle wisdom.

Even when it gets silly (a fourth reread, a fifth, pages tugged loose and the book plump with place-holding bus tickets), old favourites can surprise. On a sixth or seventh lap of The Go-Between, I finally paid proper heed to Marcus Maudsley, that fantastic little shit of an 11-year-old who has all the polished procedural snobbery of a Victorian ancient. A bit-player once ignored, now treasured.

I wonder if Hartley intended Marcus to be a slow-burner. Some novelists definitely anticipate the rereader and lay rewards. Nabokov slaps an outrageous spoiler on page two of Lolita, detectable only if you've finished it before. At the beginning of the first Harry Potter book, there's a throwaway mention of a character who won't appear for two more sequels. The novelists might be rereaders themselves, this their show of fellowship. Or perhaps it's authorial swagger - confident assertion that, yeah, this is one of those books. The sort the rereader thwaps shut with a grunt, already reaching for tape to strengthen the spine, smugly pondering the investment that'll pay back again in two years, in four ...

To freshen my memory before writing this, I carefully explored my book shelves, alert for scuffed bindings, squeezing paperbacks for the tell-tale crackle of sand and crumbs. They weren't all there, my stalwarts, but I found them - some in a pile by the sofa, a few kicked under the bed, one hidden away in an old bag. I'd seized them up when last ill or bored or moody or in need of comfort.

Rereading is therapy, despite the dash of guilt, and I find it strange that not everybody does it. Why wouldn't you go back to something good? I return to these novels for the same reason I return to beer or blankets or best friends.

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