At the start of each new year, I look back on all the books that I have read the year before. In 2013, it was a list that spanned a lifetime of reading, with books from all the decades of my life. More than ever, it was also a list full of books that I found myself returning to for a second (or third, or fourth) time.
It was a tough year of reading. A tough year for a lot of things, really. A year that began with grieving for a close friend’s lost child, which led to months of sleepless nights, when I was unable to concentrate on anything new. Instead of being in bed, I stalked my bookshelves up and down, looking for something to distract me, soothe me or send me back to sleep.
Like many of us, I have an ever-growing pile of books that I’ve yet to begin for the first time. I call it my reading ‘shelf of shame’. It’s a shelf of good intentions, of overexcited and impulse buys, of misguided gifts and dry, but useful, non-fiction that I feel like I should get around to at some stage. It’s full of the sort of books that get sidelined when something else jumps to the front of the queue by virtue of hype, zeitgeist or through some sort of professional obligation.
They are all good books, I’m sure, and don’t deserve to languish (for years, in some cases). I feel guilty for not giving them a chance; but on sleepless nights, the unknown ideas that the shelf of shame holds just feels like too much of a risk. As Melanie Joosten asked in KYD last year about the dangers of choosing which book to read next, ‘What if I made the wrong decision and ended up with a book that was shock horror – not amazing?’ Or was too amazing, I’ll add, and therefore, too engaging? Sometimes, it’s simply not worth taking the chance.
I often feel overwhelmed at the sheer quantity of new books that I still want to read – so many stories, so little time – and understand that this is an ambition that rereading can only delay. But going back to previously read volumes can be just as important as picking up new ones, to revisit old ideas and favourite fictional friends, and to re-experience the literary touchstones that help make us who we are.
With rereading, I know what I am getting: I’ve been on these journeys before and I don’t need to worry about missing any plot twists or nuances in my sleep-deprived state. Any cliff-hangers or intrigues can be safely laid aside when sleep comes at last, because I’m clued-in to exactly how it’ll all work out in the end. I can even (gasp) begin a book midway through its pages – something I’d never dream of doing for an unread volume – a welcome shortcut to familiar passages that I know will be good company late at night.
So, night after night, I would bypass the shelf of shame and burrow deep into the back shelves of my library to find more well-worn volumes to take back to my bed. It was in this act of rereading that I found my safe space: the old friends, the known words, the stories that go down easy. The books that I can trust to be free of the stimulation of new ideas (or the aggravation of poorly written prose) that can exacerbate insomnia.
Real life can be hard work. When we need to escape it for a moment, it has to be to somewhere we trust. True stories, unfamiliar fictions and newfound writing styles can seem too risky. We are comforted by the familiar; it brings us relief. For me, rereading became a sort of literary time machine – a clever trick I could wield on those nights that I found myself at my bookshelves at 2am, allowing me to get caught up in a story I already knew would have its ‘happily ever after’.
I began my year of rereading in the summer with books from my teenage years. Revisiting the entire Anne of Green Gables series made me realise for the first time how closely my own literary aspirations have followed those of aspiring writers Anne-with-an-e Shirley and Emily from Emily of New Moon. I found comfort in LM Montgomery’s small-town stories while quietly marvelling at the difference that twenty years of feminism and social justice education can do for a reader.
In autumn I had a house in mid-renovation, and had to take down and then reassemble my bookshelves, pack and unpack all my much-loved books. My bedside table reading pile swelled further with rediscovered friends. I sped through Harry Potter 3–7 (and launched a hunt for the missing two books). I spent some time with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, read the three Hunger Games books in three days, and revisited Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.
Rereading doesn’t just return us to a well-loved story, but to the people we were when we read them first: to simpler times. As a teenager, I had a go-to book of small poems and aphorisms that I’d return to when believing myself broken hearted. I dug it out again last year, but it had stopped working. Had the magic gone? Or had my grown-up troubles simply surpassed its scope? Either way, I realised it was time to pass it forward in the hope that it would help free some other young girl from her melodramatic melancholia.
For her blog, ‘Liticism’, on Crikey in 2012, writer and critic Bethanie Blanchard also returned to one of her own childhood favourites, Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Like me, Matilda (another avid reader) used books to hide from the grim parts of her life. As Dahl wrote, ‘These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.’
Bethanie’s rereading also underlined the importance of choosing the right books to reread at the right time: ‘What surprised me about returning to Dahl is that rereading a childhood novel isn’t necessarily comfortingly nostalgic at all,’ she wrote. ‘Dahl emphasises the ways in which being a child is frightening, that you can feel powerless and oppressed by those bigger and more independent than you.’
Rereading is not just about treading old ground and I too made new discoveries within familiar twists of tales. ‘Literature is not like your hometown, which you revisit to find smaller and less impressive now you’re an adult,’ Peter Damien wrote for Book Riot in 2012. ‘Returning to books later on has given you tools to dive deeper and stay down there longer.’
It is for this reason that Terry Pratchett became my favourite night-time companion. In the early morning hours, his Discworld and my dream world seemed not too far apart, and there was always something new to discover in his easy-to-read and elegantly complex prose. I’d dive deeper but without the need to hold my breath in the way some books make you do the first time around.
With Pratchett leading the charge, I was struck by how much my late-night reading list swung towards the fantastical: to witches and wizards and invented worlds. I was weirdly hesitant to add them to my Twitter list of completed books – occasionally self-conscious of an over-representation of young adult or fantasy fiction in my usually wide-reading range. But perhaps it makes some sense that we speculate on fiction when our real-life lives aren’t that much fun.
By the cold mid-year, the rawness of my grief was starting to mellow and I had entered the strange limbo-space of loss, when how we look and behave on the outside no longer reflects the changed people we’ve become. As LM Montgomery wrote in Anne of Green Gables, ‘It’s all very well to read about sorrows and imagine yourself living through them heroically, but it’s not so nice when you really come to have them, is it?’
I leant heavily on fiction in 2013. I needed to be swept up in story to still the useless whirring of my brain. Fantasy took me away from my own broken world and gave me a few hours reprieve. In the spring, I fell in love with angels again in The Vintner’s Luck, a rereading that with the help of new technologies meant that NZ author Elizabeth Knox could tweet me a message upon seeing I’d read it (when I don’t think I had even heard of Twitter the first time around).
While I may read across platforms in my day-time life, I found it interesting to note that in this year of nightly rereads, I returned to these books almost exclusively in paper form. In part, this was to avoid excess light stimulation (and late-night partner grumbliness), but mostly it’s because my comfort reads are almost entirely from the pre-eBook era.
Conspicuously absent from my late-night rereading schedule to begin with was any non-fiction (indeed, a biography of Roald Dahl still languishes by my bedside), anything to do with food (which just makes me hungry) and anything too intricately intellectual. As much as I adore AS Byatt, I can’t take her cross-referenced narratives to bed with me when sleep is the objective. And while a ‘no poetry at bedtime’ rule may seem odd for an aspiring poet, getting so worked up over someone else’s words that you can’t help write your own is not an effective lullaby.
My late-night reading adventures have not been exclusively about rereading old favourites. I also delved into many new stories last year – mostly by the local writers I came into contact with through my work. I revisited my own Holiday in Cambodia with Laura Jean McKay’s short story collection and returned to London with Catherine Deveny in The Happiness Show. I dabbled in crime fiction with Kerry Greenwood and Angela Savage, gasped in delight at Lisa Jacobson’s spec-fic verse novel, The Sunlit Zone, and overcame my non-fiction free zone by inducting myself into my literary city with Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne and travelling from Moron to Moron with Tom Doig.
I was, however, most grateful for the stories that returned to me when I needed them most, the books that helped me get through my lonely literary vigils pre-dawn. By December, a year on from my little friend’s passing, her mum and I were still bruised but showing signs of starting to become human again, with my unwelcome wakefulness coming less often.
For me, it seemed that grieving and rereading went hand in hand: a process of reliving fond memories on both counts. But while I rekindled my adoration of a work like My Brilliant Career, I was also reminded that I’d wished I had never read Miles Franklin’s sequel, My Career Goes Bung (which I’ve apparently spent the subsequent years trying to suppress, hating the way it dismantles the first book’s dream world in which I so wanted to believe). So I’ve inserted a note in its pages for next time around, to my however-many-years-in-the-future insomniac self, a gentle reminder to read what I know, but to know when to stop reading too, and letting go.