The Books We Come Back To

April 12, 2012 | 12 books mentioned 62 3 min read

covercoverThe Guardian recently posted a collection of short pieces by different authors on the books they reread, and what they gain from the practice. There even seems to be a sort of tradition among writers and serious readers, related to these perennial rereadings. Faulkner read Don Quixote once a year, “the way some people read the Bible,” and isn’t there a place in the Bascombe books where Frank invokes the old idea that all Americans everywhere ought to make an annual reading of The Great Gatsby?

Perhaps Gatsby isn’t your choice for yearly touchstone fiction (although it is mine, and Mark Sarvas’ (see below), and was, in fact, the most commonly mentioned “rereadable” in that Guardian piece). Regardless, and no matter which one you favor, it shows adulthood and devotedness, I think, to try and get back to a book you love, every four seasons or so.

covercoverThat’s why I asked a few people about the books they reread, and why. Adam Ross, author of Mr. Peanut and Ladies and Gentlemen, spent a decade reading The Odyssey once a year. Matt Bell, editor of The Collagist and author of How They Were Found and the forthcoming Cataclysm Baby, makes a yearly reading of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which he first read at age 21. He says that, while almost every other book he revered back then has receded into the background of his personal canon, Jesus’ Son has gone the opposite way, and gained in its power to move him.

The aforementioned Mark Sarvas (whose blog, The Elegant Variation, you should definitely check out,) reads The Great Gatsby once a year — in fact, for 18 years, it’s been the first book he reads every January, and he always tries to do it in a single sitting. Changes in his own life have tracked these readings: he’s read it as a single man in his 30s, “very Nick Carraway-like;” he’s read it as a husband and a divorcee; he’s read it from the perspective of a writer and, more recently, as a teacher of writers. And, lately, reading it as a father, he’s found himself appalled at the way Daisy Buchanan treats her small daughter (although, frankly, there are very few characters in Gatsby whom Daisy’s treatment of couldn’t be described as appalling). After well over 30 readings, Mark’s never bored, never tempted to skim or skip, and the scene where Gatsby tosses his shirts on the bed always chokes him up. He also points out that a book not worth rereading is probably not worth reading in the first place. Hard to argue with that.

Speaking of “inveterate rereading,” The Millions’s own Lydia Kiesling has a slightly different approach to her touchstones. She has an ever-changing list of books she makes it a point to reread every one to three years. Currently, the list includes The Sea, The Sea, The Chronicles of Narnia, Till We Have Faces, Cloud Atlas, Of Human Bondage, The Berlin Stories, The Blind Assassin, Burmese Days, Possession, Lucky Jim, The Corrections, The Stand, and A Suitable Boy. She rereads these books in part because they’re “witty even when they are sad,” and because they manage to deposit her in another world with minimal effort on her part, which is as perfect a definition of great fiction writing as any I’ve ever heard.

coverSpeaking of Stephen King’s The Stand, my wife, Jennifer Boyle, makes it a point to reread that one once a decade. Considering the book’s monstrosity — both in size and subject matter — every 10 years sounds just about right.

Eric Shonkwiler, former regional editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books, reads Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream once a year. He likes the way it transports him to the Gulf, and for all the “standard Hem charms” we know and love. (Can we all agree to start using “Hem” as the favored adjective for anything Papa-related?)

coverFinally, Emily M. Keeler, The New Inquiry book editor and LitBeat editor for The Millions, reads Zadie Smith’s White Teeth once a year, usually in September. She discovered the book in the autumn of 2003, when she was a 16-year old high school student. Her favorites back then were all dead white guys (Orwell, Steinbeck, Hem, Maugham, Waugh) and she was in a used bookstore, jonesing for more Hem, when White Teeth’s colorful spine sparked her interest. It was the most exhilarating book she’d ever read at that point, and she goes back to it every fall, “in an effort to remember that feeling of discovery,” the moment when she became aware that “literature lives both back in time and forward through it.”

So which books do you all reread yearly, or biannually, or quadrennially, or decennially, and why? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Please share.

Image Credit: Flickr/Sapphireblue.

was born in 1984 and raised in the towns of Talihina and Red Oak, Oklahoma. He is a graduate of St. John's College, and holds a law degree from the University of Oklahoma. He lives with his wife, Jenne, and their sons Oscar and GuyJack.

62 comments:

  1. Every year, from age 14 until I was 28 (and my first child was born and my brain stopped working temporarily), I read JURASSIC PARK and LOST WORLD back-to-back as my first reads of the summer, right after school finished. I even read them during my honeymoon in New Orleans in May 2004. I strongly associate those first days of summer with tales of dinosaurs and guts and insane genetics. They’re becoming a bit dated but I still think they’re fantastic stories.

  2. Nabokov’s The Gift and also his novel Glory. I haven’t reread them many many times yet but they’re the books I first turn to to reread, the most eligible. Nabokovian nostalgia and beauty at its best.

  3. Burgess’ Earthly Powers. I come back for its humor, language, setting and panoramic view of the last century. A big, entertaining masterpiece.

  4. The book I’ve re-read the most? Watership Down. I’ve been re-reading it since I first discovered it as a child. It’s terrifying and heroic and it’s filled with marvelous characters. I’ve easily read it more than 20 times and I’ve read parts of it much more than that. I also alternate re-reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Idiot about every other year. Thucydides’ The Pelopponnesian War gets revisited every couple of years, too. I read Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians annually. It’s short, sharp and brilliant. Sometimes I read new books, too.

  5. A play: Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (every two years or so), and
    A novel: W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (about every three).

    Almost always in the Spring. Couldn’t say why; I don’t question it because it just seems right.

  6. As a child and a teenager, I read Lord of the Rings, religiously, every fall. These days I don’t read anything with quite such regularity, but I return to Virginia Woolf’s novels frequently, and have probably read “Mrs. Dalloway,” “To the Lighthouse,” and “Between the Acts” at least a dozen times. Each time I notice something new, identify with a different character, single out a passage that I particularly like (or occasionally dislike). For example, as a teenager I could never understand why Clarissa chose to marry Richard–found Peter the infinitely more compelling character–but, as I aged, I began to understand the appeal of Richard’s comforting stability over Peter’s exhilarating (but unreliable) pyrotechnics.

  7. For me it’s Catch-22. I’ve been reading it every year or two since I was sixteen, I guess. Still funny, still tragic, still an education in great writing.

  8. I like to dip into Lester Bangs (a constant since high school), Joyce (I have a unique little edition which selects excerpts from his work and presents them as prose poems), Orwell (Why I Write, especially) and poetry, especially when in spiritual or emotional need: Shelley, Rilke, Yeats, Whitman, and Keats (first poet I ever really loved).

    Gatsby is actually the book I’ve probably re-read more times than any other. I don’t always love it, or love the same parts of it, but it always moves me in a different way.

  9. I find myself being drawn back to Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day”, as well as Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” every year. I read both when i was in my teens, when i started reading more literature, and i remember being struck by how powerful ishiguro’s novel was. It was a heartbreaking novel, and i think it showed the possibility of leading futile lives. Norwegian Wood on the other hand, captured the essence of the coming of age in an Asian setting like no other, and i always find it a joy to delve into Murakami’s surreal worlds.

    I have been thinking of adding Gatsby to my annual re-reading list as well.

  10. At least every other summer I read Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, a funny, poignant and tragic story of gay life in the 70s.

    The ending of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle always blows my mind, but I eventually forget the details and have to read it all over again.

    Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying just knocks me down; I am obsessed with it. If any novel deserves to be called a tour de force, this is it.

  11. Wharton- The Age of Innocence
    James- The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl, Portrait of a Lady
    Austen- Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice
    Eliot- Middlemarch, Adam Bede, Silas Marner
    Le Guin- The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness
    Forster- Passage to India, A Room with a View
    I find myself revisiting these books every year or so, and find something new to enjoy each time.

  12. Sometimes the year goes by too quickly and I don’t get a chance, but at least every two years, I read:
    Shakespeare (usually The Tempest and Twelfth Night)
    Jane Austen, especially ‘Persuasion’
    Kafka ‘The Castle’
    Murasaki Shikibu ‘Tales of Genji’ (at least parts of it, as it’s very long)
    and yes, The Great Gatsby…

  13. Great Expectations, Middlemarch, Moby-Dick, Portrait of a Lady, Pride and Prejudice. I read, and teach, 21st-Century American fiction, but I think the 19th-century is impossible to beat.

  14. I re-read Ann Patchett’s “The Magician’s Assistant” every few years. Ditto for Haven Kimmel’s “The Solace of Leaving Early.”

  15. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Blessed Assurance by Alan Garganus and The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer. About every 2 years. A lot of short stories by Bernard Malamud every year chosen randomly. And now I am in love with Edith Pearlman so I will read her stories annually as well.

  16. I go back, fairly regularly to Howard Norman, specifically the Halifax ‘trilogy’ and his latest, What is Left the Daughter (though this one I’ve only just finished my first re-read of. His steady, laconic voice is, for me, a big emotional challenge because I feel as though I come back to (and from) his stories a very different reader each time. Also, there is The English Patient by Ondaatje, Eliot’s Four Quartets, which feel new every time, Donna Tartt’s Secret History, always fun, Pat Barker’s Regeneration novels, and HG Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, which to me is the finest example of crafted terror. Ever.

  17. First that come to mind: Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre,
    Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (& to a lesser extent Go Tell It on the Mountain), Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelation,
    E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Victor LaValle’s The Ecstatic.

  18. My list of books to read the first time is too long as it is, so I generally don’t, but when I was younger I reread constantly– Daddy-Long-Legs a few times, L’Engle’s books, the Baby Sittesr Club specials, among others. If I had the time to reread now, I’d probably read Dune again, the Chronicles of Narnia, Zazie Dans Le Metro, Kim, Don Quixote, and War and Peace again.

  19. I like rereading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Harry Potter sometimes, Infinite Jest, and Tezuka’s Buddha.

  20. I have read each of these books at least four times:
    Persuasion by Austen
    Jane Eyre by Bronte
    David Copperfield by Dickens
    Portrait of a Lady and The Spoils of Poynton by James
    A Handful of Dust by Waugh
    Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Professor’s House by Cather
    Lolita by Nabokov
    The Blue Flower and The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald

  21. It seems about every four years I go back to Moby Dick. It’s so brilliantly bursting at the seams, and even the most familiar passages are strange and new. Everything it means to be American is in there, somehow, and everything it is to be in the modern world.

  22. Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s
    Patrick Dennis – Auntie Mame
    Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire and Pnin

  23. Middlemarch – Eliot’s intelligence is so calming & reassuring – and I’m happy to see someone else loves Haven Kimmel’s Solace of Leaving Early as much as I do.

  24. Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain.
    I read it at least eight times in my 20s and 30s. Never fully understood the debate between Settembrini and Naphta but nevertheless slipped every time into Mann’s rarefied world as if it were a dream waiting just for me. Would like to get back to this novel now as a more mature reader and see what it does to me.

  25. To the Lighthouse, Jane Eyre, Wonder Boys, E.M. Forster, especially Howards End and Room with a View, Mr. Bridge, Mrs. Bridge, The Sweet Hereafter, Mary Poppins, scores of picture books, including Where the Wild Things are, Milne’s poetry, The Snowy Day, books by favorite illustrators like Margot Tomes and Hilary Knight, and lots of books like someone else mentioned– Daddy Long Legs– Konigsburg–Harriet the Spy and the Long Secret– much loved and re-read in childhood and adulthood, White Teeth I reread a bunch of times in a year or two, dazzled and laughing, Nobody’s Fool, The Ice Storm, Austen, Rhys, and a whole bunch of short stories: Cheever, Cheever, Cheever, a particular Oxford collection edited by VS Pritchett given to me as a teenager, Chabon’s werewolf stories, F. O’Connor, although I never quite get my head around it, Edward P.Jones short stories, especially Rich Man and Bad Neighbors, The Lottery, Mary Lavin’s Vocation story-what a voice-In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, Gryphon, Araby, books of poems like Transformations, Hawthorne, especially Black Veil and Young Goodman Brown, books of photos and art, over and over, since childhood.

  26. Maybe I’m still looking for that book to go back to every year. Though I re-read plenty of others, depending on where they fit into my ever-changing map of reading. Some re-reads lately:
    The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
    Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys
    Lady Chatterly’s Lover by DH Lawrence
    Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

  27. Spectacular Happiness by Peter D. Kramer
    The Sportswriter/Independence Day/The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford
    Knulp by Hermann Hesse
    The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

  28. I don’t reread books yearly, but I do reread when the mood strikes. Top on my list of rereadables is Toni Morrison’s work–particularly “Song of Solomon,” “Paradise,” and “Beloved.”

    A few others:
    TS Eliot
    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
    LOTR

  29. I reread Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and plays by Beckett, o, and stories by Lydia Davis and Raymond Carver, poems by Nachoem M. Wijberg.

  30. I try to re-read East of Eden once a year. I’ve also returned to The World According to Garp, Lonesome Dove, I Capture the Castle, Anna Karenina, and The Group many, many times.

  31. For seasonal pleasures:
    Robert Hass, “Poet’s Choice”

    For old-school female empowerment:
    Elizabeth Enright, “The Melendy Family”;
    Noel Streatfeild, “Ballet Shoes”

    For a book that gets richer as I get older:
    Wallace Stegner, “Crossing to Safety”

    For understanding America at its best and worst:
    Dana Hand, “Deep Creek” (which moved me far more than The Sisters Brothers or Train Dreams)

  32. There are so many new books and old classics that I have not yet read that I do not re-read. I have a few touchstone books like The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, The Madonna of the Excelsior by Zakes Mda, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I do want to re-read all of JM Coetzee’s works up to Disgrace

  33. I’ve read both Galapagos and Slaughterhouse Five four or five times, and though I’ve “only” read Infinite Jest twice, I plan on reading it again next year to coincide with my 40th birthday.

  34. the two i can’t go long without re-reading, the two i pack first every time i move, are timothy findley’s Not Wanted On The Voyage and joan didion’s A Book Of Common Prayer. neither is particularly good for my emotional state, and yet.

  35. I don’t reread books in general, but I am on my third go-round with Anna Karenina. I first read it at twenty, again at about thirty two, and now at forty four. Each time it has grown with me and the characters reflect something new back to me.

  36. Oh God, I was trying to find the scene in The Secret History I wanted to mention,
    the one in which there was something about a child, a fried chicken leg and Henry’s tie, but I came across the inventory of drugs in Bunny’s parents medicine cabinet, and now I’m sucked in again. I’ll start at the beginning: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

  37. I would say Pride and Prejudice (or all Austen, really – she becomes wittier and more truthful to me with every passing year), Of Human Bondage (I stumble over a new, beautiful passage every time), and the Count of Monte Cristo (because it, without fail, transports me in a dashing adventure featuring so many complex story lines that find out something new with each reading).

  38. “Blonde” A Novel by Joyce Carol Oates
    “In Cold Blood” A Novel by Truman Capote
    “She’s Come Undun” Wally Lamb
    “To Kill A Mockingbird” Harper Lee
    “A Christmas Memory”: A Novella by Truman Capote

  39. My favorite book to reread is William Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies”. With each passing year you learn more about yourself and you discover more innate evils that you did not realize you had at the last time you read the book. You find yourself better understanding certain characters, relating to their motives and understanding their reasoning. The line between right and wrong and good and evil shifts with every reread.

  40. The books I read and reread as a child and adolescent I continue now to read aloud each year to my fourth grade students, now going on 14 years: The Hobbit, The Neverending Story, Jennie (by Paul Gallico), Rikkit-Tikki Tavi, and Watership Down. They grow in power as I continue to grow.
    C.S. Lewis wrote a book on this called “An Experiment in Criticism” in which he posits critiquing readers rather than books, claiming rereading as a fundamental key for identifying quality readers as well as reads.

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