Some write left-handed, some right. Some rise early, some stay up late. And in another human dichotomy—some read, and some re-read. We recidivists return over and over to favorite books. Why, when new books abound, waiting to be discovered (here I mention David Malouf’s Ransom), do we rummage the shelves for a book we’ve read and re-read?
I too “fall back.” I plead guilty to reading and re-reading favorite children’s books and books for adult children. Books that gripped me the first time I read them: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Fellowship of the Ring, The Dark Is Rising trilogy by Susan Cooper, thumbed and re-thumbed. And then mysteries, sagas and spies: Dorothy Sayers, Reginald Hill, James Clavell, John Le Carré—especially Smiley’s People. Watching George Smiley retrace the desperate steps of old Vladimir across Hampstead Heath until he finds the hidden cigarette packet: Moscow rules! Mei-Mei and Struan, dodging pirates while steering a bullion-laden junk down the Pearl River: flaming arrows! Kim, caring for his Tibetan lama, learning the jewel trick in Simla, shouldering the Himalayan foothills as he embarks on the Great Game and with the lama finds the River of the Arrow. Hurree Baba reminding Kim not to use Muslim expressions when wearing Hindu disguise.
Why? One confirmed re-reader says, “I revisit these little worlds. I can’t change the endings. I have no responsibilities.”
Not that these tales teach no lessons. Kim learns love and responsibility. Lucy and her siblings learn hard lessons: stick to instincts, stay loyal and tell the truth—in order to save Mr. Tumnus. Young Will Stanton in The Dark Is Rising bears the responsibility of the four signs on his belt and feels the power of the dark as well as the light.
Not totally. Children must leave the wardrobe, Struan must await the worst typhoon, Smiley must watch Karla toss Ann’s gold lighter at his feet. No, not happy. Loose ends remain, future threats loom. But we feel again the empowering of the characters as they become equipped for what they must face. We’ve felt again the power of a special world we loved.
But the fellow re-reader says he takes a different journey in re-reading what we call a great novel: “Each time I read a great book, it’s a different book. I see things I didn’t hear before, hear voices I didn’t hear before, experience something I didn’t experience before.”
I re-read To the Lighthouse at least every other year, always captured by Virginia Woolf’s ability to catch in two sentences the very heart of those characters and their relationships. This May I re-read The Waves, where she pushes the novel to a new form in her quest to understand human consciousness. This time Virginia Woolf made me ask myself the same question that Bernard keeps asking in The Waves, about individual consciousness and our collective lives. More on that next time, maybe.
Meanwhile, on to David Malouf’s Ransom. Malouf re-imagines Achilles’ furious grief over the death of his childhood soulmate Patroclus, his retribution on Hector, and then the visit King Priam makes to Achilles, seeking return of his son Hector’s corpse. Maybe Malouf brings this story to such vivid life by showing us how Priam chooses to make the visit in a mule-driven cart instead of a chariot, and learns from the simple mule-driver how to taste an olive, a griddle-cake, how to cool dusty royal feet in a small stream. Maybe he also does it by letting us see childhood through Achilles’ eyes. But no spoilers here.
New books abound, and this one, rooted in one of our oldest shared stories, is so worth reading. Now back to my waiting mystery draft.
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mysteries: Ghost Cave, Ghost Dog, Ghost Letter, and Ghost Dagger. She practices environmental law in Austin and lives in the Texas Hill Country, where her books are set.