Last March I was reading The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It’s fascinating, brilliant, even very funny. I’ll read it some day, probably soon. But as the pandemic spread and quarantine became inevitable (but still always of uncertain duration), I set it aside. I started re-reading every book by Joan Aiken I could find. (I’ve written about her in the past, probably will do so more in future). She doesn’t really fit in the boxes we assign literature these days. They say she writes for young readers, but her work is often dark, very dark, and her language is never simple. I think the important thing was that I’d read it all before, and madly loved it all. As dark and frightening as things got in the stories (which is very) they all (mostly) came out right in the end. With every news report of the pandemic telling us “two more weeks…two more weeks…” and news about how to protect ourselves and what to expect changing every two minutes, I think I needed to know how something ends.
To me, re-reading a story you’ve loved, after a distance of a few years or even decades, is delicious. It’s actually one of my favorite feelings. I understand that life is short and there are millions of beautiful books to be read, and we shouldn’t waste our time rereading what we have read before. But according to my research (on the internet, so we know it’s true) studies show that rewatching shows and rereading books is a good way to deal with stress and anxiety. And I think about when my boys were little, and they wanted us to read them the same book every night, in the same way, and they protested when you missed a bit or got a sentence wrong. It goes beyond the comfort of knowing how it’s going to end. It’s hoarding the treasure of beautiful words and phrases, which linger pleasantly in your head. I have a trove, A TROVE of bits of novels and stories and poems in my head, combinations of words that made me happy when I read them, and make me happier still when I encounter them again, like an old friend on an unexpected ramble on a path I used to take.
It’s getting to be a year of re-reading for me. Probably that’s too much. Probably the mental health professionals would say, “that’s enough, now, on to something new!” (I have been reading some new Chekov stories, as well as re-reading the old beauties, I’ll tell you about that another time.) I’ve moved on from Joan Aiken to Jane Austen and Dickens. And I’ve realized that one of the joys of re-reading is that dreamlike memory of loving something in the first place. I’m reading Hard Times (for these times) at the moment, which is the first Dickens I read, and I still remember the crush I had on that dark vision, that circumlocutious but entirely perfect language, the humor and the pathos. Re-reading something you loved passionately at another stage in your life helps you to remember why you read or wrote in the first place. I’m slowly recapturing that feeling, it’s coming back like feeling to cold toes.
My absolute favorite thing I’ve re-read is the Saddle the Sea trilogy. I love everything about it, and I’ll talk about it at another time, although I probably have already. But I’ll leave you with this:
“This Made me resolve, if caught in a mountain mist again, to stay still and wait patiently, no matter how long the mist took to shift, for there is no gain or sense in traveling on the wrong road.”
and with this: