Saturday, July 07, 2012

List of the Month - Books I'll re-read

The two chief delights of being on an extended holiday are that I have lots of free time for reading (something that I sometimes neglect for months at a time when I've got a lot of work on) and that I am visiting a succession of friends who are all avid book buyers (as distinct from readers, I fear - buying loads of books that I never get around to reading has often been a vice of mine, too). Hence, I am enjoying lots of opportunities to read new things. And I am delighted to discover that the Book Bank, a most excellent secondhand bookshop in Alexandria, VA., near where I am currently staying, is still going strong when so many other businesses, and nearly all the bookshops, in the area have been failing (the Old Town Movie Theatre, just up the road, another favourite hangout of mine in these parts, has not been so fortunate: it closed down just a few weeks ago); I shall undoubtedly be spending many hours browsing - and buying (hopefully leading to reading) - in there over the next week or two.

However, this sudden splurge of reading has awoken a nostalgia in me for old favourites, and left me rather dissatisfied with the new books I'm trying to read.

There are a handful of books that have so got under my skin, and which are such an intense pleasure to read, that I would happily revisit them again and again. In fact, as a laboriously slow reader, I don't have time to re-read them often, and in some cases have not looked at them in many years now - but I would re-read them if I had the opportunity, will try to ensure that I re-read them at least once or twice more before I die. [Some of these books I have reviewed here or elsewhere online, so I'll provide links where appropriate.]

Books I could read again and again

(Kenneth Grahame, 1908)
A powerful - and possibly corrupting - influence on my young life, one of the very first books I ever read. I liked it particularly because the anthropomorphized animal heroes were not cutesy talking animals but grown-ups, with grown-ups' problems. It was also a seductive vision of bachelorhood, an existence of complete freedom and endless leisure unencumbered by family or work responsibilities. Yes, very corrupting.

Great Expectations
(Charles Dickens, 1861)
For me, this is the greatest of all of Dickens' works (and a reasonably accessible length, compared to some of his other doorstops). I was required to read this as one of my set books for English Literature O-Level (the main set of exams we take at the end of the compulsory period of high school education in England, at around the age of 15 or 16), but, luckily, this obligation did not arouse any weariness or resentment in me. On the contrary, I was very grateful to have been forced to devote such close attention to it, to have been led to savour its richness so thoroughly.

(Ivor Cutler, 1984)
I became a fan of the wonderfully eccentric Scots performance poet Ivor Cutler through a few of his radio appearances I heard as a young boy. This, I think, is his very finest work, a slim volume of short prose poems comprising a distorted, often slightly surreal, but still compellingly poignant evocation of his between-the-wars childhood in a Glasgow slum. It had originally been released some years earlier as a spoken word album, but I've never possessed that. Perhaps the best book for re-reading in this whole selection, because it only takes about 20 minutes to read, and it is a pure joy. 
(There was no Volume 1.)

The Once and Future King
(T.H. White, 1958)
My favourite book of my slightly later childhood (I discovered it at around the age of 12, I would say; whereas I'd known The Wind In The Willows since I was 3 or 4); so clever, so funny.

The Bodley Head Saki
(Saki [H.H. Munro], 1963)
This was the definitive collection of the works of the Edwardian master of the short story form, and I'm peeved that I am no longer in possession of the edition I had cherished as a boy. (It's quite a valued collector's item these days, apart from anything else. I particularly liked the informative introduction by a J.W. Lambert, which included an extract from Munro's only 'serious' work, a History of Russia [now lost? I tried to find it in Oxford's Bodleian Library when I was a student there, and if they don't have a copy, then...], in which his sly wit would keep spilling out despite his best efforts to contain it. There's an unfortunate story behind my loss of this book. My favourite teacher at school was a drinking buddy of the writer and columnist Philip Toynbee, who lived fairly nearby. Toynbee had been asked to review a new edition of Saki's stories, and wanted to refer to the Lambert introduction to the Bodley Head collection, but didn't have a copy of his own. My teacher borrowed mine to lend to him, but we never got it back; the poor man was already quite ill with cancer, and died not very long afterwards.) Munro was an exquisite prose stylist, he wrote even more elegantly than P.G. Wodehouse. And his irreverent, often macabre sense of humour was completely in tune with my own. He is the writer with whom I most identify.

Cat's Cradle
(Kurt Vonnegut Jnr, 1963)
My favourite Vonnegut - perhaps because he doesn't indulge in any of his trademark tricksiness here (time-jumps, omniscient Tralfamadoreans, addressing the reader directly, throwing in random story ideas from alter ego Kilgore Trout). I love the bleakness of it - an unusual apocalypse scenario from which there is ultimately no escape. And I love the invented religion of Bokononism (rather like Taoism in its willingness to embrace the essential meaninglessness of life).

(Flann O'Brien, 1967)
Another of my great literary heroes, O'Brien (real name Brian O'Nolan) was one of the most dauntingly clever men I've ever encountered and perhaps the greatest parodist who ever lived. His writing is often exquisitely beautiful as well as side-splittingly funny, and this, my favourite of his books, is quite remarkable: I sometimes carry it around in a pocket, just to dip into at random for a quick pick-me-up - there is something delightful on almost every page.

Anna Karenina
(Leo Tolstoy, 1877)
I worry that I may never get around to re-reading this, because it is enormously long. I worry sometimes, too, that it might perhaps disappoint on second reading, that it couldn't possibly enrapture me as utterly as it did when I first experienced it, at the age of about 14. I think I should put such fears aside, and schedule the time to enjoy this a second time. It was quite breathtaking. There are so many scenes I remember from it as vividly as if I'd only read it yesterday (though, in fact, I've only read it once, well over 30 years ago; and I've always avoided watching any of the film versions of it). This is the one book I wish I had written myself. 


JES said...

You had a classically decent education; I, a merely decent one. My counterpart re-reading list would tend to the idiosyncratic, having been shaped not by teachers but by harried and sometimes confused librarians, if not just by my own wandering of the stacks. So I'm sometimes (as now) embarrassed by how few classics I've read, let alone would consider re-reading.

The Missus often boasts to people how well-read I am. It's not true. What actually happens in bookish conversation is that I sit silently on the sidelines when people discuss Dickens, Tolstoy, Shakespeare. When someone changes the subject (someone almost always does) to a bizarre little title written by one-hit-novelist X, suddenly I come to life: "Wow, I *loved* that!" Thus the illusion of erudition... because, of course, I *must* have read the greats as well.

Froog said...

Well, I think it's more impressive to have read so widely and eclectically among more recent authors. Most people fib about having read - or enjoyed - the 'classics'. And those who really have read them have only done so as 'required reading' or out of a sense of cultural duty or cultural snobbery - reluctantly, superficially, inattentively, in a manner likely to ensure that no detailed recollection persists for long.

Have you ever read Pierre Bayard's How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read? It has some useful insights into the value of just dipping into long books to get a flavour of them... or merely pretending to have read books you feel you ought to have. He mischievously suggests that you can have perfectly valid opinions - and perhaps even better opinions - of books you've never read at all.