Does Anyone Re-read Old Books?
Regular readers will have noticed a dearth of London articles here of late. This is not due to any antipathy I have for my city; for the past eight months we’ve been living out of suitcases, waiting to move home to our renovated flat, and all my reference books were in storage.
Now that I’m home and have started unpacking the London volumes, I’m horrified to discover that what I thought was a minimalist life is nothing of the kind. Yes, I’ve always owned too many T-shirts and probably have too many tea mugs but I do books the way Kim Kardashian does selfies. My bookcases have to be reinforced to take the weight. Again, rather like Kim Kardashian.
Clearly it’s time for a cull. I’m thinking; keep the classics on an e-reader, treat it like a hard drive and ditch the ephemeral thrillers. But often it’s the ephemera one needs most. We readers fantasise that we’ll one day return to our favourite novels, but how often do we really? My rule, therefore, will be to ditch all the books I’ll never come back to and save the rest.
In Brian Moore’s charming fantasy ‘The Great Victorian Collection’ a young history professor dreams of an open-air market filled with a dazzling collection of priceless Victoriana, only to awake and find it standing outside his window. But the effort of looking after so many things he prizes becomes an albatross around his neck. For surely your possessions will always come to possess you…
So, away with quite a few volumes I’ve never finished, including Tristram Shandy and Moby Dick, but then the dilemma starts. There are too many books I really ought to read (Don Quixote sits there staring at me) and too many guilty pleasures I can’t surrender (Bill Tidy’s Fosdyke Saga, I’m looking at you).
The return to old favourites is a shock that’s not always pleasant. Many of my former favourite reads now seem duller and slower than I remember, while other cutting edge novels feel like period pieces. JG Ballard’s work somehow manages to be redolent of the sixties and seventies while also being weirdly futuristic, but some other volumes have taken a hit in the new century. I’m interested to note that comic novels have in many cases worn better than thrillers, although I haven’t found any great ones in the last few years (recommendations, please!).
In an effort to encourage rereading (or first-time discovery), I have ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ coming out in late summer from Quercus Books. I’ve been working on this for many years, but the finished work will be very different from my old Independent On Sunday column, featuring the lives and writings of 99 authors interspersed with essays about those who helped (and in some cases hindered) their novels.
NB The stack of books above is currently on the first floor of Heal’s on Tottenham Court Road.