I think I might have mentioned it, but halting my persistent quest for new books has had a few unexpected, and pleasant, side effects. I’ve rediscovered the wonder of the library, I’ve found a core of discipline and patience in me that I didn’t expect. And then, what would you know? In addition to all the wonderful things I’d already discovered there was still something new waiting to surprise me (and it wasn’t a book, honestly).
I have, you might not be surprised to learn, a fairly extensive library. I’ve spent a long time building up my book collection, and part of the reason for pausing the purchases was that my current bookcases are fairly bursting at the seams. I have three bookcases in total. One is built into a convenient alcove upstairs and that one houses most of my classics, my books of philosophy, my husband’s sci-fi collection (yes, he is permitted a little space) and a few children’s books I’ve held onto in the vain hope that one day my kids might read them (seriously, everyone should read The Dark is Rising Sequence. Everyone). Of course that is really the book case for the books no one actually wants to read (though now and again I will pop out a classic, just for fun). Then downstairs I have two book cases: one which is filled with the books I have read along with my ‘collections’, and the other stuffed with books I haven’t quite managed to read yet. They are both double stacked (inner row, outer row per shelf). I must have something in the region of 1,000 books packed in there.
It’s an awful lot of books, and yet for so long I have wanted more and more. Looking back, it seems strange that I was so desperate to acquire new books when I had so many fantastic ones already waiting to be read. Looking at my bookcases with these new eyes, the first thing I noticed was that in my ‘to read’ pile there are some amazing books. I finally got around to reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and it was beautiful. I read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, which a friend bought as a present for me, and it was marvellously sad. Discovering these hidden gems in my collection has made me excited to read more of them. I have War and Peace and Anna Karenina, A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, October Light by John Gardner, about 12 books by Don DeLillo and a handful by J M Coetzee. I have books by Jeanette Winterson, Helen Oyeyemi, A. M. Holmes, The Wonderland Quartet by Joyce Carol Oates and a sampling of the wonderful books published by Persephone all neat in their classy grey and white coats. I have Shanameh (The Persian Book of Kings), Herodotus, The Mahabrhata, The Thousand Nights and One Night, Icelandic sagas. That’s just a sampling of the treasures sitting there waiting for me to read. It is surprising, thinking about all that is there, that I ever thought it necessary to read anything else.
And that’s not the end of it. Because alongside my ‘to be read’ shelf sits the shelf of ‘already have read and when the heck are you going to get around to reading us again’. Within my collection, my already read books, I have so many that I would love to read again: The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, everything by Helen DeWitt (though that is only 2), Ghostwritten and Number9Dream by David Mitchell, The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Mao II by Don DeLillo (I’m not completely obsessed, but close). It got me thinking about re-reading, and how I’d fallen out of the habit. As a child I used to read and re-read almost obsessively. It wasn’t necessarily due to lack of availability of new books, I used to go to the library every week. No, it was something else. Re-reading a book brings something out of it that the first read doesn’t. Something of the depth of it, the bits that you missed first time around. Then there’s even more to it. Re-reading a book, delving into it over and over, etches something of the story inside you, it becomes almost a part of you. There is something wonderful in being so familiar with a character, with a world, with an idea even that it becomes like a close friend, or family. You can return to it over again and it remain unchanged and yet, perhaps, you appreciate it differently because you have changed. In this way a story can show us, in ways few other things can, how we have evolved. At the same time, the story’s familiarity is comforting. It can connect us to the person that we were the first, second or even twelfth time we read it. It reminds me that only through practice do we become really good at things, and I think there are worse things to be than an artisan of Kristen Lavransdatter or The Tale of Genji, that there is no shame in repeating and repeating the reading of a book that you love. I think in this world of relentless newness, in which we are constantly encouraged to consume and move on, that the value of a deep, repeat reading is underestimated. It is something I know I have lost touch with. And yet I know that it is enriching, that a deep understanding of a particular work of fiction can provide a hidden, unexpected backbone to your life.
If you think about it, everything we know is a kind of story. My life as I know it is a story, one that changes both in real terms as I move forward but also in my history which I invent and reinvent entirely unwittingly. I overlay my life with other stories: my husband’s, my son’s, my daughter’s, my step-son’s, my mother’s, my work colleagues’, my friends’, people I pass in the street and acknowledge or don’t. I believe in the fiction of other countries and the history of mine, and the lives of people hundreds of thousands of miles away who I will never know and never meet but who, unknowingly, my story may touch upon. And then there are the story-spinners, the ‘shapers’, who tell and retell the stories of others, of heroes and villains, lovers and haters, and everything in between. That their stories touch us isn’t such an odd thing, but it is only through reading and re-reading that we really let them in. I do believe that doing so enables us to learn something true, not only about the story but about ourselves. Perhaps it is one of the ways we learn true empathy, that by caring about a person who we know not to be real it helps us to care more about the ones that are, whose existence may be separated from our own by streets or villages, countries or even worlds. Who knows? It is possible.One thing I have learned for sure, I am in no hurry at all to finish Proust. I have every story I could ever need already under my roof. I am looking forward to becoming more intimately acquainted with some of them.