One of the first books I received as a gift was Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. I was six or seven, already in love with horses thanks to my Dad, and I think I read it in one sitting, which probably went well into the night under the covers with a flashlight. I re-read that book so often, the front cover fell off. Literally, and it was a hardback. I still have the book, though I haven’t re-read it in a couple of decades or so. Hmm, maybe I’ll remedy that soon.
Over the years, there have been works of fiction I’ve read and re-read, from Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre to The Left Hand of Darkness and Slaughterhouse Five and many others in between. Re-reading something I love is like comfort food–you know it’s going to taste good, and you know you’re going to eat all of it, but each time is a different experience.
This month for a book club I belong to, I re-read Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. As I re-read, I realized when I first read it in 1985, it was as a woman’s rights activist. Her dystopian tale of a theocracy in America reinforced the feelings and fears I had then. Sadly, we’ve come back around full circle to the things that make a society, as described in A Handmaid’s Tale, possible, even probable, but that’s not the topic for today.
I realized, as I re-read this book, I was regarding it more with a writer’s eye, which makes sense. In the past two plus years I’ve been focusing more on the craft of writing than anything else. So, I noticed how Atwood opened the story with it already tightly wound, i.e., she starts “in the present” and unfolds the story with hints and flashbacks. In the beginning her descriptions are sparse, but as the story moves forward, the people, the settings, the threads of the story all become richer and fuller. The book’s “ending” is up for grabs–it could end happily or it could be a disaster; it’s up to the reader.
At least, that’s what I came away with the first time I read it. The book actually concludes with “A Historical Note,” which I apparently ignored the first time around, likely because I thought I was in the midst of the history in 1985. The historical note is a continuation of the story, and it’s a bit more optimistic than what you think the real ending is. In the historical note you discover what you’ve just read is a diary or memoir of sorts discovered almost as if it were a relic in an archeological dig. I realized what some criticized as the “herky-jerky” pace of the novel was incredible story-telling. The protagonist was on the run, putting down facts and events as she remembered them. This was an instance where linear story-telling would have made the novel a bore.
In that re-reading, then, for a political book club, I learned a valuable writing lesson. I remembered as well why that book resonated with me twenty-seven years ago and grasped why, this time, it left me a little depressed because, well, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Which books do you re-read? What is it about a particular book that makes you go back again and again–character, plot, setting?