Rereading: It’s Like Buying Pre-Owned Fashion

Reading & Writing

Nobody in my family ever dies.

My mother made it past 90 with a cheery smile on her enormous false teeth. My Uncle John is a fit, happy, tanned and laughing marvel at 91 (he sent a text to his son the other day. ‘Have you got my extension ladder?’) My feisty non-nonsense Auntie Doreen looks the same as she did fifty years ago and I’m still scared of her. They worked with radioactive chemicals and overcame horrendous health problems, yet look happier than anyone I know. My brother will still be trimming hedges up a ladder thirty years from now. And it will take machine guns to bring my nieces down.

All of which makes me the black sheep of the family. Sickly and weedy from birth, ill in my teens, near death in my thirties and intermittently terrible from there. One thing kept me sane; not family, friends or meds (although I wouldn’t be here without them) but books. Vast and endless amounts of reading.

Now I’m rereading many of my favourite old books and finding they’ve gained a new resonance.

Rereading ‘The Once And Future King’ conjures memories of lying sick in bed on a hot summer day when everyone else was outside playing, but I got lost in Wart and Kay’s world, seeing life through the eyes of an animal, then growing with the boy-king, suffering his loss of innocence and watching helplessly as the terrible Arthurian tragedy unfolds. White’s writing is unexpected and highly digestible.

So are the words of Ray Bradbury, whom I read (and have now reread) even more avidly. Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne and HG Wells all featured highly when I was a teen, plus books that have fallen from fashion, like ‘Two Years Before The Mast’ and ‘Emil and the Detectives’.

Nobody now remembers the Swiss beekeeping pastor Johann David Weiss, but in the late 18th century he was so impressed by Daniel Defoe that he wrote ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’. I remember not getting the title because I didn’t realise that it was a Swiss novel.

It’s about a suburban family shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. They swiftly christen it ‘New Switzerland’, not that there’s any obvious link between their snow-capped home and the tropics. This chronicle of survival against pirates, wild animals and the elements went on to become a beloved classic but it’s the Disney version with John Mills that sticks in the mind, and readers of a certain age won’t be able to see an ostrich without thinking of the film’s animal race. Jules Verne wrote a direct sequel, ‘The Castaways Of The Flag’, which no-one has ever read.

Anyway, it enthralled me. Now it’s almost unreadable because you want to apply modern thinking to it. I have a resurgent personal desire to read everything I read when I was younger. I didn’t finish ‘War and Peace’ when I was twelve – well, I’m not going to do that now, but maybe I’ll give ‘Anna Karenina’ a second look.

The beauty is that in my library there are old books waiting to be reread which suit every mood, and if I read several at once I can programme my reading to fit the ups and downs of my life and change my mood entirely. There are many times when an old book has pulled me back from somewhere dark and lightened my heart for days.

Nor is this simply about nostalgia – there are many books here that I had failed to read properly the first time, which deserve a second chance. The experience can be revelatory. I start to see themes and ideas present under the writing that I never noticed before. Some books become completely different second time around.

But if I sit here in my pre-loved clothes on my reclaimed furniture rereading old books it doesn’t mean I’ve stopped reading new books – but at the moment I have to admit that I’m preferring the old quality writing to the new sloppy prose. And I guess that makes me a retro kind of guy.



38 comments on “Rereading: It’s Like Buying Pre-Owned Fashion”

  1. Liz+Thompson says:

    I decided to re-read Under the Net, Iris Murdoch. Last read it at about age 15 or 16. A fairly naive teenager then. I’m astounded at how much I missed, and how bloody funny it is. I hadn’t recalled finding it even mildly amusing first time round.
    I agree with you on War and Peace; being 73 now I’m not going to waste time on a book I couldn’t sort out the characters in, because all Russians seemed to have a good half dozen different names to use.
    Read what makes you feel good or brings good memories.

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I am gradually rereading books I didn’t like much at school, and coming to the conclusion that we were made to read them when far too young. They weren’t written for children, and may well put a lot of people off reading for life.
    At the moment, however, I’m rereading Rune, which probably won’t be appearing in the school curriculum in the near future.

  3. Jo W says:

    I am working my way through the Gervase Fen books,by Edmund Crispin and thoroughly enjoying the pleasure of reading books written in grammatically correct,”proper” English. I had started with The Moving Toyshop,after the Victoria Vanishes and have managed to find second hand copies of the rest. These will be going onto the re-read shelf.
    Read what you enjoy and put aside books that don’t grip you by the first three chapters, that’s what I do. At seventy two I can’t waste time or my eyesight on rubbish.
    Only three sleeps to LBIFD ! Yippee
    Best wishes Chris x

  4. Brooke says:

    Nothing is like buying vintage fashion. Although re-reading E.C.R. Lorac’s Murder by Matchlight comes close.
    Advice–give AK a pass. Dreary novel about bourgeoisie.

  5. Tony+Walker says:

    I re-read J B Priestley’s “The Good Companions” every couple of years or so. Always seems fresh to me.

  6. Wild+Edric says:

    I read Lord of the Rings in my early teens and found the long preamble before they reach the ‘action’ quite boring. “Get to the fighting” my teenage bloodthirsty brain was telling me.

    Re-reading it now I’ve just turned 50, as a cyclist/walker who enjoys the countryside I find recognition in the descriptions of the flora and fauna, it’s very comforting and I wish those chapters were longer. If only they’d sacked it all off and stayed at Tom Bombadil’s house for ever.

    I can’t quite bring myself to re-tackle the Shannara series though.

  7. roxanne+reynolds says:

    LBIFD isn’t out on this side of the pond until december!! that is SO unfair!

  8. Stu-I-Am says:

    ‘Anna Karenina’  you say. Well — if it’s a feeling of virtuousness you’re after by getting through 860+ pages of an unrelenting stream of tormented thoughts, confusion, daily concerns, and all of the drudgeries of everyday life, by all means go for it. Especially if you somehow feel you just don’t have enough of your own — particularly now with the grand-re-opening in the face of rising infections (too bad Boris has to watch the ‘festivities’ on the telly from Downing Street).

    It’s surprising after that ‘forced’ reading all these years ago, and following hundreds of books read since, I should still vividly remember my lack of enthusiasm and why.. Yes, I know — one of the greatest, if not the greatest novel ever, in the entire world — including Stepney (nothing against Stepney, mind). Academics have made careers out of ‘Anna Karenina’ alone. And yes — read as a period piece, it is (again in retrospect) a bravura literary performance, but with insights on relationships, the banalities of daily life, politics and religion, while ‘revolutionary’ for their time, have since become common themes. To my (cynical) way of thinking, it is a valuable historical artefact; an ‘epic’ to be sure, but that’s like saying (I forget who actually did say it…) to an actor who bombed and is cadging for a compliment backstage, “it was so you!” I think you’ll find that you can put ‘Anna Karenina’ down.

    As for my ‘re-reads,’ I am finding comfort in (the fortunately prolific) Tey, Marsh, Allingham, Sayers and Manning Coles — dénouements be damned. Also revisiting Trevor, Hitchens and E. Waugh, as well as the diaries of Lees-Milne (which may still be going on, for all I know…)

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    I should also add to my ‘re-reads,’ the B&M series and again — dénouements be damned. I could care less about ‘whodunit’ this time around. The perps, while interesting as characters, are now simply part of entertaining entireties.

  10. Helen+Martin says:

    Well, we didn’t get novels assigned in high school (other than Treasure Island & Christmas Carol in grade seven) because the school board couldn’t afford the novel sets. At least I think that was what was behind it. Later on I looked at AK and decided she was just too pathetic a person to bother with but I read W&P all through and don’t understand why people have problems with it. You just have to get used to the family name/ patronimic form/first name or nickname. The cast is large but there’s usually a cast list somewhere for reference. I should go back and read it again.
    My husband is a great Ray Bradbury fan & I’ve had some interesting times with him. One of my favourites is The Hallowe’en Tree, which has a made for television version that is just as scary as the book. It’s really hard to get, though. I have Imperial Earth more or less on the go at the moment. I’m also rereading Laurie King’s series before reading her latest (and the preceding one because I was beginning to think she should retire Holmes or drop the series entirely.) I’m ready to start Bryant & May again, too.
    Accidental discoveries can be amazing. I was borrowing The Golden Thread, a history of fabrics that included fabrics for space as well as the famous golden orb spider thread. When I was checking availability I found a book of the same title about the death of Dag Hammarskjold (which I can now spell). His plane crashed in the Congo when I was 19 so I thought I’d see what this journalist had to say. I now hate real life spies even more than I originally did since they seem to think that killing people who don’t have goals that match with the spies’ and their (current) government’s goals is perfectly fine. (We couldn’t have Patrice Lumumba because he would have handed Katanga over to the Russians, uranium, diamonds and all.) The only female head of MI6, Daphne Park, claimed that she organized the Lumumba killing and certainly didn’t eliminate any thought of UK involvement in other events in the Congo. If anyone is listening it’s about time for the UK and the US to open their archives about those events because it’s not going to endanger anyone’s policy now. There, that’s all I can do to open things up.
    I should just shut up now.

  11. Stu-I-Am says:

    ‘An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. . . . We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.’
    ― C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature

    ‘A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.’
    — Robertson Davies

  12. Brooke says:

    @ Helen. Try The Fabric of Civilization, Virginia Postrel. Well written (I don’t say that often), informative, understands that civilization didn’t begin and doesn’t end with western Europe.
    However, as a black citizen of USA, I can tell you we’re busy adding to those classified documents–conferatur recent events in Haiti.

  13. mike says:

    I re-read many series during lockdown, Dorothy Dunnett, B&M all the Christian Cameron books the Lonesome Dove quartet and several other series. I’m about to start on my 5th reading of Patrick O’Brian.
    The nearest I got to books from my somewhat younger days was the Flaxborough Chronicles.
    I never got on with Agatha Christie but read most of the Russian classics in my teens, the only thing I retain about them is I don’t want to revisit the gloom. Don’t recall reading Anna Karenina though.
    I have become a shallow reader in my dotage.

  14. Martin+Tolley says:

    Vivien Leigh or Greta Garbo or Nicola Pagett, or Keira Knightly?

  15. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Martin+Tolley Apparently there is now to be a seventh ‘Anna Karenina’ television series. This one from Netflix, set in modern-day Russia and titled ‘ANNA K,’ would be the very first Russian original drama series. It stars Svetlana Khodchenkova in the title role. She has appeared in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ and ‘The Wolverine,’ among other features.

    As for the 15 (so far…) AK movies, I have to give the nod to the 1967 Russian version, directed by Alexander Zarkhi with music by Rodion Shchedrin.and starring the luminous Tatiana Samoylova (Veronica of ‘The Cranes Are Flying’) in the title role. I ot the chance to see it in a cinema with subtitles and while the DVD is okay, it really does not do it justice.

    A close second is the widely acclaimed and perhaps most famous,1935 American adaptation starring a somewhat overwrought (for my taste) Greta Garbo and Fredric March,directed by Clarence Brown. If forced to, I would put the Leigh/Richardson next, although I think it would have been much improved with Olivier as Vronsky in terms of chemistry — and then the Knightley/Jude Law collaboration which, although generally well done, was kind of emotionally ‘blah’ in the end. Knightly was good.

  16. Ed+DesCamp says:

    Any possibility of Bryant and May’s Mystery Tour being made available to those of us on the wrong side of the water? Just asking for a friend…

  17. Andrew+Holme says:

    Lockdown re-reads included the 12 Poldark novels. They were just as good as I remember when I read them for the first time back in the Seventies. Am I too becoming a shallow reader in my dotage? Forget AK. Angharad Rees or Eleanor Tomlinson?

  18. John Howard says:

    Like you Admin, one of my constant joys at this time of life, yes same as you, are the bookshelves full of things that I have bought down the years. Mainly from the seventies onwards. The sixties were generally library books or the ones on my parents shelves. As a result of picking what was on their shelves I still have a guilty pleasure whenever I read a Georgette Heyer. She isn’t for many here I suspect but the writing is still as good as anything from it’s time. Although I’m currently reading something that isn’t from the shelves. Samuel Pepys diary. I’m glad i’m reading it now as I find I can appreciate everything in it. Just finished the part about preparing to go to sea to get the King and bring him back for the restoration after the fall of the commonwealth. Stay safe and feel all these positive waves man..!!

  19. Jo W says:

    Sorry that you’ll have to wait for LBIFD until December,but there must be some advantages for us, trying to survive Plague Island.;-)

  20. Jan says:

    I loved “Once and Future King” a great story.

    I think I ‘ve mentioned here before when T.H.White writes about Guinivere at the beginning of a chapter in the middle book outlining her character and explaining, not critically, but just laying out that seed in her nature that would in the Romantic version of the Arthur’s tales destroy his court and cause her to fall so in love with Lancelot.

    The real genius though is his retelling of the folk myths and tales from many cultures when Arthur is turned into a number of creatures and views his world from their p.o.v

  21. chazza says:

    Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine”. It always acts as my personal time machine and I’m 13 years old again, lying in our back garden on a hot summer’s day listening to bees. Wish I could stay there forever rather than this rotten era.
    Can I expect a Jack Finney-style fracture of time and space?

  22. Peter+T says:

    For Anna Karenina, I’d definitely watch the film with Garbo rather than read the book. It’s still grim, but she gives it some style. Rather than Russian literature, why not re-read Graham Greene? He fits all the moral pain into far fewer pages and even tempers it with some humour.

  23. Paul+C says:

    A favourite comfort read is The Gold Bug by Edgar Allan (not Allen !) Poe which Baudelaire translated under the fabulous title of Le Scarabee D’or. Wow.

    According to the literary historian John Sutherland, a young lad called William F Friedman was obsessed by this tale of deciphering a mysterious code and became the expert who cracked imperial Japan’s Purple Code in WW2. Friedman – the US equivalent of Alan Turing / Bletchley Park – and his team obtained crucial plans to defeat Japan at the Battle of Midway which turned the war in America’s favour. Without Friedman’s fascination with Poe’s tale………

    John Sutherland has written some wonderful books including How To Be Well Read (brief pieces on his favourite books) and Lives of the Novelists (294 idiosyncratic sketches of famous and lesser known novelists from the past 400 years). Can’t recommend them highly enough.

  24. Keith says:

    Ah, but where to begin. I’ve read so many great books over the last 50 years I wouldn’t know where to start. Perhaps with the classics; Kafka, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Melville, Tolstoy, Bukowski, Golding, Bradbury. Oh, and all those strange little books that I can only remember by the title, like Who Wrote the Book of Love and Blackpool Vanishes.

    But imagine what we would miss that’s being published daily. It’s like music, there’s so much of it do we actually need anymore? But of course we do. I think Shantaram would be high on my list, along with Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, just for its stunning opening.

    Well just 2 days to go and I’ll be able to order London Bridge is Falling Down from Amazon. It will be my birthday come early.

  25. SteveB says:

    Swiss Family Robinson was a standard in my childhood.
    The other forgotten childrens’ author is Malcolm Saville. There was a book ‘Seven White Gates’ that from the age of 7 to I guess 11 or so, I used to read at the start of every school holiday, because it starts with the heroine Peter going on her school holidays, on her bicycle to the Stiperstones.

  26. Roger says:

    “Who Wrote the Book of Love and Blackpool Vanishes”
    Is that one book or two, Keith?

    Morgan Le Fay in The Once and Future King was based on White’s mother, Jan. If you think you had childhood problems…

    I’ve never actually read The Swiss Family Robinson or seen the film, but I’ve got a copy illustrated by Mervyn Peake and like the pictures.

  27. Helen+Martin says:

    Somehow I think Mervyn Peake is not the artist I would choose for Swiss Family Robinson. That was a favourite of my Grandmother’s and she kept it handy for bathroom reading. My mother laughed at it because Grandma thought it was – or could be – true.
    Well, I have laid hands on The Master & Margarita and have holds on Klein’s Why We are Polarized and Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In. This web site plus CBC radio’s The Next Chapter provides me with all sorts of new/must reads. Thank you all and thank you, Chris, for this gift to us.

  28. peter says:

    every 2-3 years i re read Joseph Conrads Lord Jim and Victory – in this present heatwave they are quite atmospheric in their depiction of sweltering heat and best read with a drink and preferably sat next to a window as night falls it must be time to read them again after London Bridge of course – keep writing and reading Chris best wishes and thanks for the wonderful escapes from reality provided by Mr Bryant and Mr May

  29. Keith says:

    Hi Roger, two books, I’ve recently found out that Blackpool Vanishes was written by Richard Frances and is quite easily available. Also I found some lovely artwork dedicated to the front cover. It’s a curious little ‘English’ novel, concerning tiny flying saucers ‘as big as midges’ being not taken seriously before the whole resort is swept away. Very strange indeed. Who Wrote the Book of Love? Well I’m still not sure.

  30. Rob Lloyd says:

    I’m having a second childhood with my reading. Just reread Nigel Molesworth and Professor Branestawm books, having bought them for my son. I enjoyed them far more than he did! Another recent reread is Ronald Welch’s For The King, which is as excellent as I remember. Might have a go at some Arthur Ransome next.

  31. Helen+Martin says:

    Rob, it will depend on where you are. Outside of England Arthur Ransome is a difficult go because they are such upper class kids and everything has physically changed as well.

  32. Sarah Bowie says:

    The Once and Future King is up there in my top 5 books. I, too loved Swiss Family Robinson. Thanks for the reminder about Malcolm Saville, Steve B. Did anyone else read Elizabeth Goudge? Can I throw in Heidi, too?

  33. Helen+Martin says:

    Just received word from Blackwell’s that LBIFD is on its way. Yippee doodle day!!

  34. Jonah says:

    Greta Garbo’s silent Anna Karenina or her talking Anna Karenina?
    The silent MGM film of 1927 has the generic title of “Love” and John Gilbert as Vronsky. The MGM talkie of 1935 had the correct title and Fredric March as Vronsky. How many stars have filmed the same role and story twice? (Not counting sequels which recycle the same plot in variations over and over.)
    This past winter I got a third of the way through the novel. What bogged me down was not the Kareninas/Vronsky story (which I found absorbing), but the endless pages Tolstoy devotes to the farm landowner Levin and his inward battles, desiring to be a man of the people despite being a wealthy landowner and reaping its benefits. A little of that goes along a way. Of course, most film versions chop down Levin’s part considerably, if not completely, until he’s only a subordinate character. The 2000 Channel 4/PBS version starring the recently dearly departed Helen McCrory got the balance just right. There’s enough of Levin’s story to illuminate the contrast between the city and country folk, and make audiences the socially inept but well-meaning Levin likable, played here by Scotsman Doug Henshall.
    Another Scot, Sean Connery played Vronsky in a 1961 version co-starring Claire Bloom, which is available on DVD although I haven’t seen it yet.
    As for treasured books to read again someday, a favorite of mine is Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”. A favorite series: Michael Bond’s Monsieur Pamplemousse, but of course!

  35. Jo W says:

    you mentioned probably my favourite book of all time-Three Men in a Boat,to say nothing of the dog. I cannot remember just how many times I have read it. As to why,I suppose it’s just an enjoyable read and entertains me. It can be dipped into at random and still make me smile. I have three copies,one of which is always on my bedside table,just in case of “can’t sleep”. I also have it downloaded on my i-pad, which has come in handy for travel and in one instance,hospital. Hooray for JKJ.

  36. Helen+Martin says:

    He wrote other things, too, including a sequel “Three Men on the Bummel”. Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow is pretty good but Three Men in a Boat – and don’t forget that dog – certainly appears to be everyone’s favourite. His middle name was Klapka would you believe?

  37. Rob Lloyd says:

    Helen+Martin I still have the books from my childhood. From the days when a Puffin paperback cost 40p. I remember them fondly, rereading them as soon as I finished them, but it is a dangerous thing revisiting those worlds sometimes. An aside: a lot of my childhood was spent in hospital, and I associate Arthur Ransome with the smells of the ward!

  38. Roger says:

    I’ll keep an eye out for Blackpool Vanishes, Keith – it looks like my kind of book. I’ll have to get the Elixir of Immortality to get round to it though – my ambition is to reduce my book-buying to one new one for every book I read. I’ve got a long way to go.

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