“That First Fine Careless Rapture”

There’s a category of books that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.  Every time I go to a used book store (usually Magus Books, here in Seattle), I see all these wonderful novels on the shelves that I am oh so tempted to purchase, even though a) I’ve already read them, and b) I already own them.  (Since I have my books shelved alphabetically by author, I can even easily find them — once a librarian, always a librarian.)  That palpable yearning to buy, again, books that I’ve already read and remember with enormous fondness and pleasure, made me realize that there are some books that I love but will never read again, because I don’t want to spoil “that first fine careless rapture” (as Robert Browning said in a totally different context in his poem “Home Thoughts, From Abroad”) that I had when I first read them. 

I have become aware that I have a fear that this rereading will leave me disappointed and wondering what I saw in the novel the first time.  This has happened to me before.  When I reread Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer for a class I was teaching, I was stunned at how much it had changed since the first time I read it, which was in the early 1960s, right after it won the National Book Award in 1962.  It meant so much to me then — I totally identified with the main female character and I was swept up in Percy’s fine writing.  But this recent rereading left me cold — I was impatient with the characters (although the writing was still magnificent) and just didn’t see now what I had seen in it then.  Why had I liked it — loved it, even — so much before?  What did that say about the person who was me those long years ago?  This train of thought threw me into a serious funk, because I didn’t want all those years to have changed Percy’s book into one that didn’t interest me now. 

So then I started thinking about the books that I felt I’d better not ever reread because I loved them so much the first time.  And here’s my list (so far), in no particular order:

Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins

John Irving’s The World According to Garp

Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip

Gail Godwin’s The Odd Woman

Merle Miller’s A Gay and Melancholy Sound

Clancy Sigal’s Going Away

David James Duncan’s The Brothers K

Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan

Even as I write this, though, I find myself thinking about how terrific it would be to pick up Kay’s book again and be drawn into the world he created, and those fascinating characters, and wondering if I’d cry at the end of the book as I did the first time I read it; and how I’m sure that I would still adore The Odd Woman, even 35-plus years after I read it for the first time, and that family Duncan invented…. But I’m going to try to resist.  All the novels on my list were perfect for me the first time I read them.  Perhaps it’s too much to ask to have them remain the same book, when I’m no longer the same person who first read them, so many years ago. 

 I’d love to hear what books fall into this category for you.



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39 responses to ““That First Fine Careless Rapture”

  1. Odette

    The books I am afraid to re-read are all books I read in my childhood and teens. These are books that affected me deeply at the time. I’m afraid that if I re-read them I won’t feel the magic again and that will spoil those books for me forever.

    Mister God, This is Anna (Fynn) – I read this book when I was about 8 or 9 and I felt a profound connection to Anna. It was the first time I’d read about a little girl who was different to everyone else and who had a mind that constantly examined and interrogated the world around her. I found a copy of the book a few years ago but it still sits on my shelf, unread. I am too afraid to spoil my childhood experience.

    All S.E. Hinton’s books. I discovered her books in my early teens and they were a revelation. Her teens struggled with many of the problems I was struggling with too. Their lives were as dysfunctional as mine was at the time. She wrote in a language I (as a teenager) could relate to.

  2. A friend alerted me to this post… what a good one!

    With the exception of some high school required reads, (because I am a tutor,) I have never re-read a book in my life… I feel as one of the previous commenters that there are way too many good books out there that are new to me that I want to read.

    However, I am about to reread my favorite book of all time for a book club… She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. I read it about 15 years ago and Dolores has been a hero of mine ever since.

    I am very nervous to reread… what if Dolores is NOT my hero anymore? What if the second reading leaves me less than satisfied?

    But, I am going to do it! As I said above, I have reread some books from high school and so far I’ve been happy with the rereads… high school was a long time ago, I was “forced” to read those books, and I had forgotten a lot of the story… To Kill a Mockingbird… A Raisin in the Sun… Macbeth…

    To be continued….

  3. Nancy, What an intriguing topic. I don’t often re-read, because I barely get to my new books! I fully agree re: The World According to Garp and The Prince of Tides. Others include Colony by Anne Rivers Siddons & The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving. But it works in reverse; I’ve read Atlas Shrugged twice and the second time was more fun because a lot of the puzzle pieces came together. I love the comment above about “delicious memory.” Lots of books to explore now…

  4. Faye Foster

    When looking back at all the books I have read in my life time, I can honestly say I have only ever reread one. The Clowns of God by Morris West. I own many of his novels and have read them all once, but this one was my favorite and I seem to reread about every ten years. Another that I read in the ’80’s that I would like to reread, but am afraid to is A Creed for the Third Millennium by Colleen McCollough. Now that we are in the 3rd mill. , I think it would disappoint me, because I would be trying to compare and see her insights back then with what is happening today

  5. martha tofferi

    I’m not much of a re-reader–I can hardly keep up with my BTR (Books To Read) list. And then there’s the fact that it’s usually mysteries and non-fiction (history) for me. However, I did buy JL Carr’s A Month in the Country just in case I ever wanted to read it a second time, and it was no longer in print. It’s still on the shelf. But I’m telling an untruth. I’m re-reading The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers in preparation for a trip to Bremen, Bremerhaven, and Lubeck this summer.

    And now I’ll go off message and ask ‘traveling’ book question. I hope you’ve run across Gillian Tindall in your research for your new book. She’s a little hard to find here (both SPL and KCLS have a few of her titles). I recently finished Footprints in Paris–and if I were heading there, it would be a ‘must take.’

    • Nancy

      Thanks for the tip, Martha. I’m getting a copy of it, and if I like it as much as you did, I’m going to include it in Book Lust To Go (due out in September) (and, of course, thank you for suggesting it).

  6. Alex

    I have re-read many books throughout my life and have seldom been disappointed. Sometimes the “magic” has been different, but usually the magic was still there. I do find that the meanings change as I grow older. What I thought about a character/situation is completely different, but I find that makes it somehow a “new” read. Somewhat gratifying in a sense. There are SO many books that I wish I could “re-read” for the first time. Garp, Catch-22, Lonesome Dove, A Soldier of the Great War, to name just a very few. It is so pleasurable/painful to get to the end of a truly great read wishing it wouldn’t end! Most of the books on this list I have re-read, some many times. I find that I still love them. To me a great book is always great.

  7. susan sampson

    There is a set of children’s books I would like to identify. I didn’t read them, they were read to the class by an odd 5th grade teacher who did not believe children should read fiction, so these were like “New Journalism,” applying fiction story-telling techniques to nonfiction. I should add that this was in the late 1950s. They were stories of animals as encountered by the young protagonists, and if I remember, one character stuttered. I may be confusing plots, but one involved a man converting a hollow tree into his house and hand-carving a set of checkers. It’s my own fault I don’t know the name of the set–I was hiding “Calling All Girls” magazine in my desk and reading it instead, until I got hooked on the story. SueS

  8. Margaret

    I heard you on NPR this morning talking about place. It was Patti Page singing Old Cape Cod that is drawing me to Cape Cod next month. Do you have a book recommendation that captures the feeling of Cape Cod?

    • Nancy

      Here are some books set on Martha’s Vineyard – David Kinney’s lively The Big One: An Island, an Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish is an in depth account of the annual 35-day Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby, a contest that takes place after the summer tourists have gone home and one that pits teenagers against recovering alcoholics against hedge fund managers and charter boat captains out for a (long) busman’s holiday.
      Jill Nelson’s Finding Martha’s Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island explores one of the most interesting aspects of that bucolic island: for centuries African Americans have lived there, in their own enclaves, either as a summer getaway or year round. In addition to her own memories of the importance of Oak Bluffs to her, Nelson includes reminiscences from author and law professor Stephen Carter, Spike Lee, Bebe Moore Campbell, and others.
      In On the Vineyard: A Year in the Life of an Island, Jane F. Carpineto describes the varied people and places she encounters during her sojourn there.
      Birders will both adore and mourn over the changes that have occurred since E. Vernon Laux wrote Bird News: Vagrants and Visitors on a Peculiar Island in 1999. It’s enough to make you want to travel back in time…
      Philip R. Craig wrote 19 mysteries set on Martha’s Vineyard, beginning with 1991’s A Beautiful Place to Die. His detective is Vietnam veteran, former cop, chef, and fisherman Jeff Jackson.
      Other novels set on Martha’s Vineyard include Anne Rivers Siddons’ Up Island; Illumination Night by Alice Hoffman; and Dorothy West’s The Wedding (which is set among an African American community much like the one Nelson describes above. (Indeed, West is one of the writers who contributed to Nelson’s book.)

  9. zandy

    The book in this category for me is “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell. I loved it so much, I’ve recommended it to so many people, it’s always at the top of my “favorite books ever” list. But when I reread it, it just wasn’t the same. Fortunately, I am able to keep the memory of reading it the first time unblemished by the second.

    • Odette

      Oh I love The Sparrow! I’m so glad to find another fan of the book. I’ve read it twice and I know I will read it again. I wasn’t disappointed by the second reading because I’d raced through the first reading (the story excited me so much) so I picked up details I missed the first time. I’ve also read the sequel (Children of God) twice and felt similarly.

  10. Athena

    I reread a lot of books, but I can not bear to reread books that hit me in the gut and make me cry. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving falls into that category. I read that book in one sitting and cried so hard I can’t even imagine re-experiencing it. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is another. I was so racked with emotion while reading I could barely see the pages!

  11. Elizabeth

    Interestingly, LIONS is one of the few books I’ve re-read multiple times (though that’s a different sort of list). Kay’s books are so layered and nuanced, I get more out of them each read, catch subtleties I’d missed before. Given your experiences with other novels, though, I can certainly understand the reticence. Still, like others commenting here, sometimes being – well, I’ll say ‘more experienced’ rather than older! – has helped me to appreciate a work even more than I did on a first read. Shakespeare would be my example. Really enjoyed his works even as required reading in high-school, but absolutely revel in them now.

    • Nancy

      I’m just about to start a re-read of Lions of Al-Rassan. Kay has a new book coming out this summer, I think – can’t wait to read that one, too.

  12. Nora Carrington

    I saw this in the Guardian today, and immediately thought of you. The author reviewed Oscar and Lucinda, and then, on the occasion of a later re-reading of the book, reviewed his original review.


    • Nancy

      So happy you sent that link, Nora – I thought it was so interesting to read, both as a book reviewer and as a reader – it made me want to reread Oscar and Lucinda, actually. Thanks for sharing it.

  13. Deb Evers

    Isn’t it funny that some books seem to “grow” with us while others do not? There may be an analogy to marriages that make it and those that do not, but …not the time nor the place.

    When I was twelve-ish, I picked up and devoured my first real classic, “Tess of the Durbervilles.” I loved Tess and felt so akin to her. Why, I do not know (probably had something to do with teen-aged angst). I had absolutely nothing in common with Tess. At any rate, I counted that book dear to my heart for many decades. As a school media specialist, I recommended it to many young girls. Most of them quietly slipped it back into the library while I wasn’t looking and then avoided making eye contact with me for several weeks.

    A couple of summers ago, I decided to revisit Tess. What a disappointment! The book just no longer spoke to me. I felt like I had been betrayed. I actually felt like I had lost a good friend!

    I’ve reread many books over the years and enjoyed them tremendously, but I am a little unsure when I pick up an old treasure, now. I don’t want to lose any more “Old Friends.” I understand your comments fully!

  14. Carrie

    I reread a lot. But after thinking about your post, I usually only reread those books that made me feel comfortable and warm when I read them the first time. Like eating macaroni and cheese or snuggling up in a favorite afghan. Authors like Rosamund Pilcher and Maeve Binchy — where people are kind to one another. Sometimes I need that hug. That being said, I do, sometimes, try a book again that I had trouble with the first time. Sometimes it works and I enjoy the read, sometimes not.

    • Nancy

      Yes, I understand what you mean about needing a hug from those kind of books – for me, the two authors that serve that purpose are from the 1950s and early 1960s – D.E. Stevenson and Elizabeth Cadell. You should try them, although Cadell’s last 5 books or so weren’t very good. Or at least I didn’t care for them so much.

  15. I’ve been sitting here thinking for a few minutes about your question, and cannot come up with any books that apply. I love re-reading books, mainly by Anne Michaels, AS Byatt, Michael Ondaatje, RA MacAvoy, Edith Wharton, John Irving, Edith Pargeter, Pat Barker, Jeffrey Eugenides, Tim Winton, Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Chabon, among others, and find that each re-read either enhances my initial enjoyment or brings to light something new and wonderful about the story or characters or style of writing. One book that immediately springs to mind that is the opposite of your described situation is AS Byatt’s ‘Possession’. I neither understand nor enjoyed it the first time I read it, but then read it again several years later after having seen the movie and thinking that, even in my vague memory, Byatt’s storytelling was better than the screenplay. I am so glad I did re-read it, because it’s excellent and she has thereby become one of those authors whose work I will read whatever it happens to be about.
    Thanks for your blog. This is my first comment, but not my first enjoyable visit!

    • Nancy

      I’m happy that you haven’t experienced what I have when rereading – it makes choosing books to read so much easier, somehow. And it doesn’t happen all the time – I can reread the mysteries of Agatha Christie or Emma Lathen or the early novels of Dick Francis or Elizabeth George’s mysteries or Stephen McCauley’s The Easy Way Out or Elinor Lipman’s The Way Men Act over and over again. it just happens with certain books..

      • Yes, you’re right about the choice of re-reading matter. And I agree completely about re-reading Agatha Christie (which is further testament to her writing – we enjoy her stories repeatedly even when we’re bound to remember the plot and outcome). I’m not familiar with some of the other books you name, and look forward to exploring them.
        P.S. Of course, I should have said ‘understood’ instead of ‘understand’ in my first comment.

  16. Louise Barrette

    Nancy, my reread experience involves The Magus by John Fowles. Back in the 70’s I read his Daniel Martin, The French Lieutenant’s Woman & The Magus. I thought they were so dissimilar in style, I found it hard to believe there was a common author. However, at 24, I read The Magus & loved it. The mind games played by the characters were intriguing – who was crazy, them or me? I was mesmerized & deliciously frustrated. I reread the revised version during the 80’s, sometime in my 30’s & still enjoyed it, but less so. In 2002, I recommended it to my book club, & myself & the few that finished it, hated it. What a disappointment! I realized I was a different person who couldn’t recapture the original magic. So I think I’d better not reread The Cider House Rules, another favorite.

    • Nancy

      Probably a wise decision re Cider House. I’ve heard that before about The Magus – it is such a novel of its reading time – I think maybe you have to be a certain age, like in your 20s or 30s, to really connect with it. But on the other hand, I’m sure we can find people of all ages who loved it as much as you (and I) did in our 20s and 30s.

  17. I can vouch for a second reading of Midnight’s Children… it’s even better the second time through, when you can pay attention to how all the details fit together. Also, I thought I was the only person to go into a used bookstore and want to buy books they already own, just because they’re happy to find them.

    • Nancy

      Yes, I agree that a second reading of Midnight’s Children is a good idea. I had the same experience you did of rereading it and “getting it” better than I felt I did the first time – but that second reading was a long long time ago, and now I can’t imagine going back and reading it again (although I bought the Modern Library or Everyman edition of it solely for that purpose).

  18. Fran

    I just bought a boxed set of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in used but good condition because I no longer had an intact set. I loved it so much when I first read it in the ’60’s, but now that I have it again I find I’m afraid to reread it and somehow ruin that delicious memory.

    • Nancy

      I also read it in the 60s on the recommendation of my best friend at college. I do think it – like The Magus – was a book of its time. When I read reviews of it from time to time, I’m always shocked, because it doesn’t seem as though they’re reviewing the same book I read. Does that ever happen to you?

  19. Toni Ciardullo

    Nancy, I’m somewhat dismayed because most of your re-again books never made it into my hands the first time. As a reading/literature teacher for forty years, I read just what I want now. I’m grateful for my abiding love of Vanity Fair, Paradise Lost, Middle March. Now I get to read quick treats. With YA books; Smek Day was one I had to re-read instantly and Liar. Curse of Chaleron (I had forgotten I had read it and then enjoyed it double.) The Hobbit is one of my favorites and I accompany Bilbo down the tunnel to the dragon many times. His strength just a few grams more than his desire to run has sustained me. There is not a false note in that book. I re-read Christmas Carol every holiday season I remember. I’m sure there are other, but that’s a sampling. I wanted to thank you for your recommendation, I so enjoyed Firman by Savage (o Thank you for your reading. In the last year, it has definitely improved mine.

    • Nancy

      Have you read Going Bovine? That bears an instant rereading, as does When You Reach Me, the new Newbery Award winner.

      If you liked Firmin, now you have to read Cry of the Sloth.

  20. Iva Freeman

    Lucky Jim was hugely disappointing after a 20- year gap in reading. I had recommended the novel to many people during that time; the re-reading found him not very funny and the situations seemed dated.

    • Nancy

      I’m feeling that I’m lucky that I haven’t tried to reread Lucky Jim. I wonder if humor is something that dates a book much more than other things do? I’d be interested in having someone read in now for the first time and comment on this.

  21. What a great topic! I have a few:

    1. Diary by Chuck Palahniuk
    2. Pompeii by Robert Harris
    3. The Kin by Peter Dickinson
    4. Rich in Love by Josephine Humphreys

    • Nancy

      Oh my gosh, I haven’t thought about Rich in Love for a long time. I’ll have to find my copy and read it. I do remember rereading it years ago and still liking it…

  22. Lu

    I have to agree with you about The World According to Garp. I just loved it to pieces when I first read it and count it among my favorite reads. But I’m worried if I reread it I wouldn’t love it as much. I don’t reread very often, mostly because I have so much I’m reading now, but that is one I’ve thought of before.

    That’s a really beautiful line, I’ll have to find the rest of the poem to read.

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