Risk and Rewards of Re-reading Fiction

Old library with pile of books and vintage alarm clock on top of them on a desk.This last few weeks, I’ve really been experiencing the risks and rewards of re-reading fiction. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am deep in Project De-cluttering.  This is long overdue and requires me to find room on my bookshelves to put many, many books that are currently sitting in piles on tables, desk, clavichord and, I’m afraid, even the floor.

Find room on bookshelves? Easier said than done.

Part of the solution has been to install a new set of shelves on a small wall space in my newly refurbished spare room. (The refurbishment was responsible for starting Project De-cluttering, to be honest. Pure desperation.)

So far, I’ve cleared the spare room of books-on-the-floor and books-on-the-blanket-box and bedside table. It turns out that the new shelves offer the perfect space to gather my ultimate classics from a lifetime of reading romantic novels.

But deciding which books get a place Is a major problem. Ideally many books will need re-reading and I am much too willing to slip into a beloved fictional world and forget – well, everything.

My Earliest Re-reading Habit

Image by Myriams-Fotos from Pixabay

I’ve always been a great re-reader. And it started early. When I was small, I used to have an annual bout of bronchitis. In the early stages I was utterly miserable, sleeping (intermittently) with 4 pillows, to prevent coughing myself into a paroxysm and pretty much refusing to eat. Well the medicine tasted like onions and the taste lingered.

The answer, to the latter, my mother found, was Noddy. Yes, Enid Brighton’s much reviled little wooden doll with the red cap. Librarians hated him– and her.

I didn’t like him very much, to be honest. He was boring and a bit of a plonker. And his little red car left me cold.

But there was one book in which he had a boiled egg for breakfast. As soon as I got to that part, I’d want one too. Result!

That book stayed on my shelves long past the time I should have stopped reading Noddy. Probably until the bronchial cycle blew itself out when I was seven or eight.

At the time, of course, I was too young to calculate the risk (loss of reputation) or recognise the reward (anorexia avoided).

In those days, I didn’t realise I was being manipulated. My mother was a devious woman. I take my hat off to her.

Regular Re-reading Fiction for Personal Reasons

Apart from that one instance, however, I am more of a spontaneous re-reader, because I fall over a book by accident, or some idea or event drives me to search it out. I am not one of those people who put a re-read in their inner calendar, like a religious observance.

My father was. Every Christmas he would take down a well thumbed volume from his Dickens collection and read A Christmas Carol. He would read out the best bits to me, too.

I think it helped him brace up for what could be seriously stressful family rituals. So there was the reward. The risk, a slight one, for she was good, kind woman, was that my mother, up to her ears in warring elderly ladies and peeling brussel sprouts, would brain him.

Regular Re-reading Fiction because of The Book

Image by Johanna Pakkala from Pixabay

Of course, some books positively invite that sort of regular return. A fascinating article on re-reading at publishers Penguin’s website points out that Virginia Woolf’s day in the life of Mrs Dalloway incites devotees to re-read the book on the date in question. The article identifies this as 16th June, which is, of course, Bloomsday.

Given Woolf’s distinctly equivocal response to Ulysses, I was surprised. Roger Fry had brought a typescript to Virginia and Leonard, presumably in the hopes that the Hogarth Press might  publish it. She put it in a drawer. (It was enormous. They cannot have had the budget for it.) Then her diary says that one day she showed it to Katharine Mansfield who “began to read, ridiculing: then suddenly said, But there’s some thing in this.” Clearly they both loathed it but had to admit that it had qualities.

Virginia herself continued to struggle with the Ulysses, giving up at page 200 i.e. less than half way through. She may have dipped in or skim-read the rest. One has the feeling that she went on, recoiling and re-reading bits, for the rest of her life. Now that is a horrible risk to run and an excellent reason not to get trapped into giving a book infinite second chances.

mansplaining wordcloud

Joyce, of course, was garnering largely respectful, though sometimes seriously critical, reviews. Probably the worst, from Virginia’s point of view, was enthusiastic praise from TS Eliot whom she much respected and seems to have lectured her on the subject. Did that drive her back to after-page-200, poor woman? I really can’t see any reason that she would have chosen to set her own beloved book on the same day as Ulysses.

late Greek Easter picnicSummer yes. Bloomsday? Emphatically not.Woolf actually says that the events occur on a Wednesday in the middle of June. In 1923, when she was writing it, this would have been June 13th. In 1924 it was 11th and in 1925 (Mrs Dalloway was published 14 May 1925) it was 17th June.

I did, indeed, know someone who, whenever she bought herself flowers, deliberately made it an act of homage to Woolf and her heroine, Clarissa Dalloway. And, I gather that there has at least once (in 2013) been a Mrs Dalloway walk round London on a suitable date.

And Bloomsday, of course, has now spilled out beyond re-reading into real world tourism and Dublin rejoices.

(Yeah, OK. Punning is puerile. Couldn’t resist.)

The risk of this sort of obsessive fan re-reading, I suppose, is that your friends starting to think you’re bonkers. And the reward? Well, memorialising, if that’s what floats your boat. Or general acting out of the fan girl type. Not sure Virginia would have approved. Bet Joyce would have loved it!

Is it still a Keeper? Really?

Which brings me to the risk and rewards of re-reading fiction to set up a classic romance collection. Or, in other words, what makes the outstanding romantic Keeper? And how much does it hurt to recycle a book that isn’t?

Let us look at just one of the shelves in my Personal Classics Section. Bear in mind that this is still a work in progress. I have three more rooms with lots of books that need to be weeded. There may well be some important candidates still in waiting.

You may be able to see that there are three authors there whom I have loved for a long time — Paula Allardyce, Jennifer Crusie and Jilly Cooper. I have read many of their book and more than one is a keeper. Not all. And not all for the pure romance of each book. I mean I love Rivals, but there is much in that novel which is utterly gripping, quite painful, not romantic, and not happily resolved.

Now should I pick a) the first one I read, which hooked me in? b) the one I am most likely to re-read? c) the most famous? d) the one I love most? Or should I bite the bullet and put all the books of each favourite author on that shelf. In which case I need more shelves, probably all round the walls of the spare room.

So there’s the start of the risk list– impossible choice! AAARGH.

My inner bureaucrat says I need to re-read every candidate book and make a checklist of essential criteria. The inner child – not all that inner, to be fair – rubs her hands with glee.

Another voice — captious Catty who has made things difficult all my life — says that you can’t edit history. If you loved a book enough to keep it for umpty-um years, it’s already earned its place. Kick it out now and you’re not only rewriting the past, you may well regret it in the future.

My writer self says, “NO-O-O! You have a DEADLINE.”

But in the meantime, all those books have to go somewhere as I pick them up off the floor. So the classics shelf continues to take shape, in a for- the-time-being back-of-the-envelope sort of way.

Oldest Resident Keepers

The earliest discovery on my Romantic Classics shelf is The Rebel Lover by Paula Allardyce. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have had a complicated but enthusiastic relationship with this fascinating author’s work (real name Ursula Torday).

Suspend disbelief? Unancounced ghostThis book was the first time I remember being really gripped by the course of a relationship – between a Jacobite rebel on the run and a negligible poor relation heroine. Frustratingly, all I had was in a single episode of the story, which I found in an old magazine at my grandmother’s.

I would then have been eight or nine, I suspect. I didn’t actually track the whole book down until, chasing other out of print books, I discovered it fifteen years ago. That was the first time I actually read the whole thing. And it was a cracker. Read it in one gobble.

5 star delusion not inspirationIt will stay on the shelf because, even if I don’t like it as much on eventually re-reading, it was still the first time I noticed a romantic relationship having a dynamic course to its own, rather than simply delivering the Happy Ever After prize at the end of a story. Judging by comments on Goodreads, both characters and writing stand up well to 21st century criticism.

Léon_Bonvin_-_Cook_with_Red_ApronThe second unchallengeable Keeper did the same thing for my relationship awareness. What’s more I actually read it in its entirety –  Sweet Witch (1955) by Richard Llewellyn. His publisher described it as “a departure” from his earlier style. His famous novel/play/ movie was How Green was My Valley (1939), set in a Welsh mining town between the wars and now a Penguin Modern Classic.

Although, maybe the subject here was not such a departure. The Welsh-set romance develops against a serious politico-economic struggle in Napoleonic times. The hero is a smuggler cum freedom fighter. (And spends much of his active service time in drag.) The heroine is an aristocrat and heiress, well travelled and self-determining. Their relationship develops in spite of secrets, through a number of challenges and against societal norms.

I got it from the library, so never owned a copy, until I found one in a second hand shop many years ago. I have yet to re-read it since then. But I know I wasn’t disappointed.

Again, I expect that it will keep its place. Quite apart from anything else Llewellyn himself  intrigues me. I now want to know more about him.

BUT…maybe not yet.

In fact, definitely not yet to any of this. The Libertà hive will be relieved to know that in the race between book-weeding, identifying romantic classics and the urge to complete my present novel, the writer self is currently heading the field.

Sophie Weston Author

Sophie

4 thoughts on “Risk and Rewards of Re-reading Fiction

  1. Lesley2cats

    Well done, Sophie! I re-read a lot, although mainly e-book versions of books already on the shelves. But I can’t get rid of them. I love them too much.

    Reply
  2. Anne Gracie

    Oh dear, Sophy, my sincere sympathy. Culling books is so very hard. And it takes forever — at least it’s taking me forever. When I moved into my new house two years ago, I decided to have bookshelves built into one wall of my so-called office. I have piles of books in boxes, and I’m s l o w l y getting through them, not rereading them all, otherwise I’d never get it done. Thank goodness for e-books, that continue to feed my addiction without taking up shelf space. And thank you for the book recommendations.

    Reply
  3. Joanna

    You remind me, Sophie, that I MUST do something about the heaps of books in our house. Often shelves are stacked two and three deep. But it is SO hard to part with books, any books. Must do better…

    Reply
  4. Elizabeth Bailey

    I’ve decluttered most of my fiction proper books. My keepers are the Harry Potters which I’ve re-read at least twice, plus my favourites from the Pratchett Discworld novels. A few old favourites I can’t bear to get rid of like Catch 22, In This House of Brede and The Charioteer, a few hardback Heyers. Some odd random titles I haven’t yet read, and those signed by author friends. Otherwise, it’s copies of my books (oh, don’t they mount up!) and my research and reference books that stay on the shelves. It’s tough to get rid of them all, I totally understand. For me, the incentive was coming to a tiny flat. I simply don’t have the room and when I buy novels, I get the e-book.

    Reply

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