Like many others in what is now nearly a year of plague-induced isolation, my wife and I spent many hours reading. In normal times we read a lot. I always have two books going at a time, alternating between one fiction and one nonfiction one, and my wife is usually buried deep in a novel (though, as I have noted in prefaces to my own mysteries, never any of that genre—including mine!). In 2020, we read even more.
The problem, however, was getting books to read. The bookstore in Portland that I routinely patronize shut down at the beginning of the plague. It offered delivery of orders, but that approach presented two problems: first, you have to know just what you want and can’t browse to find books you don’t know you want; second, the delivery systems (USPS, FedEx, UPS) were so overwhelmed by the surge in online purchases that it often took weeks to get the books I ordered. I found another independent bookseller that remained open and began to buy there, but because it’s smaller than the Portland one its stock is limited. Special orders were readily accepted, but the problem of knowing exactly what book you want remained. I understand there’s a website of a company in Seattle on which you can order anything you want, but the day I patronize it will be the day of my memorial service.
It turned out the solution to our problem of finding books was right in front of us in the form of yards and yards of bookshelves where over the years we have placed thousands of books. But of course, with few exceptions, we had read them already. Reading a book for a second time was simply not a habit, with the exception of those very special ones that I ritualistically re-read every year: The Great Gatsby and Walden. So the absence of new books to read as we endured the plague forced us to become re-readers. What a pleasure it turned out to be.
I started with the 12 novels of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series, reading two a week and enjoying revisiting the very English world Powell creates so brilliantly. Next came a festival of John Marquand, in some ways an American version of Powell. I had read most of his novels at one time or another, but reading through them in order of publication gave me a new appreciation of his talent and of his growth as a writer. He is sadly neglected today, but as I re-read him I became a bit of a crusader on his behalf, sending emails to friends urging them to give Marquand a try. John Cheever was a natural fit in this line of writers of novels of social manners, but he turned out not to hold up well. The Wapshot novels were disappointing and kept me from going on to his later ones, at least for now. I may return to them if the plague persists. Other old favorites have held up well in re-reading.
I also re-read nonfiction, mostly historical studies that I had read in my earlier days as a scholar of early American literature and culture. The master works by Bernard Bailyn and Edmund Morgan were particularly impressive on second reading. I’m currently re-reading Alan Heimert’s Religion and the American Mind from the Great Awakening to the Revolution, a 550 pager so dense with theological analysis that I limit myself to 30 or 40 pages a day. As I do, I’m coming around to accept the original criticism of it as a work of fiction, but that’s another matter.
When I tell friends about my re-reading frenzy, the first question is always “How much do you remember?” Sometimes a lot, sometimes almost nothing beyond a sense of general atmosphere or strong characters. Plots in novels rarely come back to me, and even though in re-reading the historical studies I always know how things turned out in reality I seldom remember the shape of the writer’s argument. Perhaps I just suffer from poor memory. But I think it’s more a case of being a different person. It’s a truism that books appeal differently to you at different times in your life, and finding new pleasures in books you had liked before becomes a way of understanding your own growth. Maybe the pleasure of re-reading is simply having something to read. But I also think that there is some deep human need to repeat, to revisit, to try again. When I finish telling a story to my 5-year old granddaughter, she almost always says, “Tell again.” She likes the comfort of hearing something she likes a second or third time. I’m now reading to her the Pooh stories, a deeply satisfying experience for me because I read them to her father so many years ago—read and re-read them to the point that we both have huge passages forever lodged in our minds and can repeat them if triggered by a phrase like “it was on just such a blusterous day as this” or “these are the wrong sort of bees.”
We know the plague will eventually end, and when it does bookstores will open and I’ll be back to browse and sample new titles. But my re-reading habit isn’t likely to go away. I know I’ll still pace my bookshelves and seize on a novel or a history that I once liked and want to find out if I still do—and why. Tell again.