Rereading: It’s Like Buying Pre-Owned Fashion
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.