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.