Reading, and Re-Reading the Best Books

My book group has chosen for our first book this fall,  “Rules of Civility,” by Amor Towles. You may know him as the author of  “A Gentleman in Moscow,” but “Rules of Civility” was his debut novel. I have read it already, read it shortly after I read “A Gentleman in Moscow” and here’s the deal. 

I didn’t like it. 

It is set in the late 1930s in New York City, and not my favorite setting for a novel, especially as I was able to spend so much time with the Count in the Metropol Hotel, gazing at the Kremlin across the way when we got bored. So, “Rules of Civility” just fell flat. But here’s another deal. 

This time, I love it. 

It is as if I never read it the first time.  Nothing is familiar to me and I am underlining and highlighted passages like I am to be tested on it, and it a great read.  How is this so?  Well, it just is. 

I enjoy re-reading my favorite books.  “The Great Gatsby”  for example.  I suspect teachers require it because, as classics go, it isn’t too big.  I’ve read it three times, at different phases of my life, and it was a different book each time.  If you haven’t read it in a while, return to it, and you will see what I mean. 

My grandmother was an avid reader.  She brought home stacks of novels and history books, always returning them before they were due.  She didn’t want a blemish on her permanent record. In her 80s she began checking out books she had read years before.  She had forgotten most of the book, forgotten, even, that she had read it, and as far as she was concerned this was such a good thing.  She got to enjoy it all over again. 

I have read, and re-read, Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” Her “White Album,” too.  Both are collections of essays set in the 1960s, an era I was influenced by, but too young to take an active part in. I will remember an image, a snippet of a well-turned phrase, and off I go to find the book.

It then lies about for a month or more, and before I return it to its home, I have read everything in it.

My pal, Alice, rereads books all the time.  If you could see her collection, you would know what a thing this is.  When she finishes a book, she writes in pencil on the last page, her name, the date and time.  I love this but would never be consistent enough to do it. 

She re-reads Michener.  Michener, I say.  She recently purchased “The Drifters” and sent it to my Kindle—did you know you can do this?  Also a Michener, but one I would actually read. It took place in the 60s and followed a band of disenchanted youth across continents. I loved every page I didn’t actually turn.

I am already looking forward to a week at the beach, maybe two, when I have forgotten enough to enjoy it again. 

I read “The Miniaturist” on a long flight home from Europe, and then finished it off at home. I loved it so much, I would like to read it again before I start the sequel, “The House of Fortune.”  It arrived last week from Waterstones, and is one of the prettiest books I have ever seen.  I can’t re-read my copy of “The Miniaturist”, though. Alice has it, read it, and can’t give it back.  She says she can’t explain it, but once she reads a book, it is as if they have bonded, Alice and the book, and to my face she said, you will not be seeing this again. 

I have to admire her honesty, and I have offered to get her own copy, but no, it isn’t the same, apparently.  She has probably already penciled in her name, the date and time.  I get it, sort of, but no, not really. 

About the only book I loved but could not read again was “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”  I tried, but as I read the first few pages the intricate and intriguing plot twists spooled out in front of me and there was no going back to a fresh beginning. 

Maybe in my eighties I will see it at the library.  Pull it down from the shelf, as my grandmother did, and think, oh, this looks interesting. Get a nice young person to help me carry it to my car.  It’s a big old book.  But not as big as a Michener.

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