Posts Tagged ‘Harper Lee’

On vicarious experience

April 11, 2017

When my father used to get infuriated by my referring to books I’d read when I was arguing with him, he would point out that you can’t learn everything from books, and nor can you believe everything you read in books. What he was referring to was the importance and the value of lived experience, and the lessons that you learned from it, and I belatedly have to admit that he was right. His outlook on life was irrevocably shaped by very harsh experiences in his younger years, and yet, at the same time, he sowed the seeds in me at a very early age of the desire to study and learn, and to go off to university eventually: he very much wanted me to have the education he’d never been allowed to have.

And recently I came across a quotation which I know I’d have thrown back at my father in those younger days, had I known it then – the idea that if you don’t read, you only live one life, but if you are a reader, then you live thousands of lives. Yes, I know that’s vicariously, but it’s still a very powerful notion. Of course, I’ve forgotten where I came across the quotation and who said it…

This got me thinking. Of course, there are history and geography books, and films, television and documentaries that can teach us about other times and other places, but they are not the same as living through a character in a novel set in another country or century, where you can get inside the mind, thoughts and feelings of a person – admittedly fictional, but carefully and consciously created to be convincing – and the point is that, until time travel is invented, that’s the closest any of us is going to get to living in another age. Yes, we could move to another country rather more easily, but would we want to, and could we experience and understand life as, for instance, a Russian, having been born and brought up as English? A skilful writer can take us as close as it’s possible to get to that experience; perhaps we might enhance it with a visit to that country.

Then, of course, we might think about emotional experiences: how many different kinds of love, relationships and affairs, happy and tragic, have we encountered? And do we, can we learn anything from reading about such things, does our reading make us any the wiser in terms of managing our own lives? Can I, as a man, really learn and understand anything about the life and experience of being a woman, from reading? I’d argue that I can and have, even though it is inevitably rather limited, and obviously cannot be the real thing. Does reading about madness help us know or understand anything about different mental states?

A few years ago I calculated that I’d probably read upwards of three thousand books so far; that seemed both rather a lot and not very many. Where have I lived, and when? Some books that I feel have given me some profound insights: what day-to-day life in Nazi Germany was like: Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin; living in the time of Stalin’s purges: Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy; a utopia I think I’d quite like to live in: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; some understanding of life in a totally different culture: Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy; an insight into the mind of a committed Nazi intellectual: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones; what if the Soviet Union had succeeded: Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda; an insight into the meaning and power of patriotism and loyalty: Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb and The Radetzky March; a vivid impression of the Deep South: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman…

I could find more examples with a bit more searching, I’m sure, and there will surely be people who can tell me, “But it was nothing like that!” But I maintain that literature – reading – has broadened my horizons immensely, and given me insights into people, places and times I would otherwise never have begun to understand.

My A-Z of reading: B is for Beginnings

October 16, 2016

What’s the most effective and memorable beginning to a novel (or a play or poem, for that matter) for you? Many will perhaps default to the obvious ones, like the opening line of Pride and Prejudice… but what makes a really effective start?

I suppose there are the ones we remember, and the ones that actually work, the ones that have an instant effect, and the ones that creep up on us. I’ve always liked the opening of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-fourIt was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. That works for me partly because of the immediate shock – what sort of world is this, where clocks actually strike thirteen? And it takes me back to my childhood, at the end of the 1950s in the little village where I was born, where the next-door neighbour but one, a reclusive old woman, actually had a decrepit clock that did strike thirteen. This astonished me, and I used to love listening to that final, wrong strike.

But the one I remember most often is not actually an opening sentence, but the opening incident: the narrator of Lawrence Sterne‘s Tristram Shandy is telling of the Sunday night ritual in his parents’ household: Sunday night is intercourse night and he is about to be conceived, when in medias res his mother enquires of his father if he had remembered to wind the clock… for me, this sets the tone for the rest of this wonderful novel, the longest shaggy-dog story in the world as someone once called it.

When teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, I was often conscious of the long opening section – Part One – which is getting on for a third of the entire novel, and appears to go absolutely nowhere. Occasionally a class would become somewhat restless as we read, and this caused me to reflect on it as the opening to a novel; it was often only at the end of the entire book that we could go back and reflect on what Harper Lee had been doing with that lengthy introduction – “too much description, sir!” – creating such a vivid sense of place that we could actually fit ourselves into Maycomb. The book needed it, before the real story of Tom Robinson could start.

Plays are no different, and looking at what Shakespeare does is instructive. Often he hurls us head-first into the action – the witches in Macbeth, the storm in The Tempest: we are instantly gripped and cannot look back, and in different ways he develops the stories and sweeps us forward. And yet, he can do slow and subtle, too: the discussion of Antonio’s melancholy at the start of The Merchant of Venice, for example, or the gentlemen comparing notes about the king’s erratic behaviour at the start of King Lear.

John Donne has some wonderful opening lines in his Songs and Sonnets: Busy old fool, unruly sun (The Sun Rising), for example, or For God’s sake hold your tongue (The Canonisation), or When by thy scorn, O Murderess, I am dead (The Apparition), or Mark but this flea… as an exercise in seduction technique unequalled by any other poet I know.

So what works, and how? Something must intrigue us, either instantly and suddenly as in the Donne poems, or it must begin to insinuate itself, to sow a trail of loose ends and possibilities that we find sufficiently interesting to continue to pay attention, rather than go off to something else, as Shakespeare intrigues us at the start of King Lear. And whatever bait a writer or poet dangles before an audience or reader, it must go on to offer the promise of (eventual) satisfaction after that initial flash of inspiration.

Harper Lee

February 19, 2016

So, what did she achieve?

She painted a wonderful, if romanticised, picture of the Deep South, in which her love of the place shone through clearly. However, she was also very aware of its troubled past and present. She brought childhood innocence to life in the children she created, again perhaps romanticised, but that is what most of us do to our childhood memories. And she showed how that innocence is often cruelly dispelled.

She wrote an engaging story, that unfolds initially in a very leisurely manner, reaches one  conclusion, but then continues, to an ending which takes us back to childhood, and to the cusp of adulthood, first shocking and then comforting and reassuring her readers.

Because I taught it so often, and always insisted on reading every word aloud in class, it’s probably  the novel I’ve read more times than any other, and I know it extremely well. Its lessons – about racism, about childhood, about families and parenting, have never palled, and with every class I taught it to, raised different questions and discussion points. Sometimes it took a while for some students to grow to like it, but I think they all did.

Some people have carped and cavilled about this or that aspect of her novel. It’s not perfect. She wasn’t Jane Austen or Tolstoy. But she wrote a novel which has endured for over fifty years, more than can be said about most of the other novels from that time. It’s a novel which countless thousands of school students have enjoyed, and Michael Gove – philistine idiot – has deprived English schoolchildren of that possibility now.

I’m saddened by her death, and very grateful for what she gave us. RIP Harper Lee.

The staircase (concluded): Themes & Ideas

January 25, 2016

I suppose, in terms of my teaching, the themes and ideas were the optional extra, as I explained in that introductory post: there don’t actually have to be any, and plenty of novels are successful enough without them. It’s where works of fiction become more complex and demanding of their readers, and novels which are set for examination or other kinds of study will normally be chosen because they contain ideas and issues for the student to explore.

Clearly, it’s possible to read a novel and ignore or skate over the ideas because what you are interested in is the plot or the characters, particularly in that first reading; maybe they are not particularly noticeable or evident; perhaps you will deliberately look for them later. I’ve always enjoyed and responded to what I call the literature of ideas, not that I don’t enjoy fiction to relax and unwind with, like my collection of science fiction and detective novels. But – and I don’t know whether this came about because I turned into a student of literature – writers have usually made me think, at the same time as entertaining me.

Here I realise we come on to another idea which isn’t perhaps widely considered, that once an author has published a book, it is public; that is, the author no longer has sole ownership of it and what it says or contains. A reader may find something, interpret something in a way that the author didn’t originally intend, or didn’t think of when writing: that is a valid idea, or interpretation nenetheless. So, these themes or ideas that I’ve been writing about may be deliberately intended to form part of the work by an author, or they may be accidental, and this is not always clear; it has seemed to me that the more time that elapses since the first publication of a novel, the more open it becomes to a wider range of interpretations and meanings than the author may originally have intended. Her or his novel is in the public domain (I’m not meaning the legal sense of the term here), in the wild, as it were, with an existence and potential for understanding that are its own. Some authors openly acknowldege this, some may have not even thought of this possibility…

I’ve written theoretically thus far about the concept of themes and ideas, the third step of my staircase; now I’ll consider two texts in the light of the theory, by way of illustration.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a story. A brother and sister grow up, in a single-parent family, with their father who is a lawyer and who undertakes a particularly challenging defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman, in the racist society of 1930s Deep South USA. He loses the case. That’s the novel, and yet we can look at it from a number of other angles: it’s about growing up in a racist society and the different ways people respond to this; it’s about parenting and how parents shape your life; it’s about the relations between parents and children; it’s about adults and children; it’s about growing up and how you change in the way you see and respond to the world. All of those are the bigger ideas or themes lurking in the novel, and surely there cannot be many readers who have not noticed some of them.

Birdsong is a story of the First World War, the horrors of the trenches and how men survive or not, set against he background of the Battle of the Somme. And yet… it’s a novel about comradeship; it’s a novel about how men react when pushed to the absolute limits, when any minute might be their last, living amongst unspeakable horrors; it’s a novel about the power of memory, across the generations, and the power of memory to shape lives. Faulks very carefully weaves a number of different threads together to bring out each of these key ideas and more…

My reading of fiction has always seemed the richer for being able to see such connections, and an even broader picture than just those of the plot and the characters; if students are encouraged to look more widely, they will surely enhance their understanding of a text, write more intelligently about it, and glean higher grades.

The staircase (continued): Character

January 24, 2016

This is the next level in terms of depth of engagement with a text: there are various questions to consider. Is a character convincing (if the writer is writing a realist novel)? If it’s a fantasy, then the criteria may be rather different, but somewhere along the line issues of plausibility or credibility come in to play as necessary to convince us to stay with a particular text. We need to be interested in a character’s progress and development – hence the popularity of the bildungsroman, for example. That’s what keeps us interested in Jane Eyre, in Villette, in some of Somerset Maugham‘s novels, to name a few.

This is also the next level of analysis: we can consider not only the individual characters, but also the relationships between them, and whether we find their interactions convincing. We may encounter such things as the development of romance, feuding, issues of loyalty and betrayal, exploration of friendships… We will also have our own response to specific characters – we may like or dislike them, want certain things for them in terms of the plot development: they take on lives of their own, independent of the author, even though they are the creations of that author. This can lead to us disliking the ending of a novel because it does not turn out the way we think it should have done…

For an illustration, I turn to two of my favourite characters, Holmes and Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. The relationship between them is quite sketchy, as are their individual characters in general. But there is a relationship, starting off from an engineered encounter, introductions and their negotiating the terms on which they will share rooms. As the stories progress, we see through small details the trust that develops between them, the things they like and dislike in each other, the differences between them. Watson is twice married in the stories, and moves out of 221b Baker Street; he has a medical practice of his own at one point, and yet what we might find rather unconvincing is the ease with which his long-suffering wife allows him to join Holmes on any and every caper when he is asked… Holmes’ response is very touching on the couple of occasions where he realises he has overstepped the mark, and exposed his loyal friend to too great a danger. Though the detective stories are the most important thing, as readers we are glad to meet the pair again, in some familiar surroundings, but about to embark on a new adventure. Incidentally, this is probably why I do not like the new modern takes on Holmes, but that’s another matter.

Looking at a couple of more serious examples, from a novel I loved to teach – To Kill A Mockingbird – we can see how skilfully Harper Lee uses her characters in the book. We have the complex relationship between brother and sister, parent and child relationship between them and their single parent father, and then more generally the whole range of relationships between adults and children is put under the microscope: Dill’s sad and fantasised relationship with his father, the strange relationship between Boo and Arthur Radley, Boo’s protectiveness towards the children, Mayella’s appalling relationship with her father which is shockingly laid bare at the trial…

Because we are people too, we can live vicariously through the characters of a novel, and this seems to me why the characters are the make or break element in the success of a book: if there’s no-one who speaks to us, to interest us, to grab our attention and have us interested in their fate – imaginary though it is – why would we bother?

Go Set A Watchman and To Kill A Mockingbird compared

January 23, 2016

51CC2jfysbL._AA160_51A6rmAqknL._AA160_Anyone who looks at the two books side by side (which probably means every reader) will be shocked and surprised by the changes to and differences from what we have always been familiar with. We have to remember that GSAW was written first, and that Harper Lee was sent away by her editor to rewrite it. And we need also to remember that TKAM is set in the 1930s, whilst GSAW is set in the early 1950s. Finally, it does no harm to recall that the time of the writing of GSAW – the first novel – was much closer to the time when the novel is set, and the complex racial politics of the US at the time. Nowadays those political arguments are remote, perhaps half incomprehensible: what informed the editor’s reaction to GSAW all those years ago?

I remember (and perhaps some of my readers may, too), a GCSE oral coursework task that I occasionally set, which involved a hot-seating monologue about a chosen character from TKAM twenty years after the events of the novel. Varied and interesting as the students’ performances were, none approached the power of GSAW’s arguments.

Congenital heart disease kills Scout’s mother in both novels; it explains the non-appearance of Jem in GSAW. Sexual abuse and incest, only alluded to in TKAM in Mayella Ewell’s courtroom testimony, is clearer and plainer in GSAW. Both Scout and Jean Louise visit the negro quarters; the encounter with Cal in the 1950s is far harder and more upsetting in the 1950s context. The disapproving Aunt Alexandra is there, as is the mad Cousin Joshua; the isolation of Maycomb and the strange history of the county is there, almost unchanged; missionary teas happen in both novels, though much more carefully choreographed and bitingly satirised in TKAM.

The visit to the black community’s church is a powerful episode in TKAM: the white church service in GSAW falls rather flat; there is a flashback to Atticus’ successful defence of a black man accused of rape by a white woman during the children’s childhood in GSAW; the courthouse scenes are obviously right at the heart of TKAM, whereas the courthouse is the focus of a racist gathering, Atticus’ attendance at which triggers the explosions that shape the conclusion of GSAW. Epsiodes from the children’s lives (Jem, Scout, Dill) figure in both novels.

The focus is different: GSAW is Jean Louise’s novel, whereas TKAM belongs to a whole raft of characters, shifting subtly as we get inside the skin of so many of the characters.

Both books are, in their different ways, about growing up, the loss of innocence; I found myself initially judging that this is less skilfully done in GSAW, but then I was less sure. It’s done very differently, to be sure, and perhaps the young Scout’s adventures in TKAM are cosier and more endearing, less challenging and threatening than those undergone by an adult. Certainly GSAW is much bleaker: Jean Louise has lost Cal, and fears she has lost her father and the rest of her family, too.

In the end, I did feel that GSAW is a much cruder novel, and I can see why an editor would have said ‘go away and do a lot more work on this book’. The initial set-up is rather bald: Jean Louise the outsider returns home to be shocked by how racist her home town seems to be. There’s a great deal of preachiness about the racial problems of the 1950s, and at times I felt the novel slipped into didacticism. And yet, I can accept that this may have come from Harper Lee’s genuine love of the Deep South as her home, and a picture of it very different from the rest of the US which was still, a century after the Cival War, trying to impose its values and methods on the region. Special pleading? But certainly an editor might judge it a barrier to its success as a novel. The more romanticised picture which emerges in TKAM certainly guaranteed success.

My perspective is also probably different from others’: having taught TKAM so many times in my career, I feel I know it like the back of my hand. And GSAW is both a fascinating insight, and thought-provoking complement to its – much better – successor.

 

Harper Lee: Go Set A Watchman

January 23, 2016

51CC2jfysbL._AA160_I finally got round to acquiring and reading this book, and I’ve thought about it quite a bit. I think it’s impossible to write about without the shadow of To Kill A Mockingbird hovering in the background, as I can’t imagine anyone who has picked up this book to read without having read the world-famous best-seller. Nevertheless, I will try… (Cue usual spoiler alerts, if needed!)

Firstly, after reading it myself, I cannot recall a single review or article about the book (which henceforth I will refer to in these posts as GSAW) which did it justice: it’s far more interesting and complex than has been allowed. Like TKAM, it’s a novel about growing up.

The heart of the novel is a lengthy, complex, powerful and sustained argument about the racial politics of the Deep South in the early 1950s, that rages between Jean Louise Finch, a woman in her early twenties who now lives in New York but who has returned to Maycomb for a vacation. She argues with her childhood sweetheart (who would be her fiance), her Aunt, her father Atticus and her Uncle Jack. As a young adult she realises that her father and family are not the people she thought they were when she was a child but judges them hypocrites; innocence must be shed, painfully, as part of growing up and becoming a person in one’s own right.

The structure of the novel feels rather loose, especially in the early stages, which are the build-up to the argument outlined above. I didn’t really find Hank, her childhood sweetheart, terribly convincing, either as a character or as a potential husband for Jean Louise, and, interestingly, he almost seems to fade out as the novel works towards its powerful denouement.

The elderly Atticus is crippled by arthritis and looked after by his sister Alexandra; his brother Jack lives close by: Maycomb is a place where you belong or don’t belong, and Jean Louise doesn’t know whether she fits any longer: do you inevitably become an outsider once you leave a place?

Throughout GSAW – though it is in many ways a rougher and less well structured and shaped book than TKAM – there is evidence of real subtletly in character portayal and development; one is aware of the beginnings of the talents that would shine through more clearly in TKAM. The real origins of that successful novel are here, and one is left with the impression of Lee learning on the job.

The tone of the novel is livelier, less leisurely and dreamy than TKAM; there is already some of the dry humour and folksy wisdom that we perhaps came to know and love in that novel. I read it quickly; I couldn’t put it down (I refer you to my remarks on plot in my previous post!); I know I shall go back to it and re-read much more carefully soon.

Next post: Go Set A Watchman and To Kill A Mockingbird compared.

On not reading a certain book…

July 24, 2015

97800995494829781785150289It has occurred to me that some of my former students may be a little surprised that I do not seem to have rushed to read and write about Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s ‘new’ book.

I read the first chapter while away on my travels, because it was published in The Guardian; I was intrigued, and though that at some time I would probably read the book. Since then I have read a number of articles about, and reviews of, the book, with people reflecting on Atticus Finch the crusty old racist, and the disappearance of Jem…

I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird more times than any other book, through having taught it so many times as an English teacher, and if I taught you it, you will recall that we read every word of the novel aloud in class: I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Most students came to like, if not to love the book, and I have a soft spot for it; it is a very good book. It’s very carefully structured and well-written; it makes readers think, quite deeply, about a whole range of different and, I think, important things, and that is the hallmark of a good book for me.

So, I’m more than a little wary of having my impressions of the characters disturbed or altered. Yes, I hear you saying, as I said to you often enough, it’s a novel, they are characters, they don’t really exist! Harper Lee can do what she likes with them… I’m aware that there’s been no little controversy about the elderly author’s control of her writings, and uncertainty about the provenance of this new volume. The picture I have in my mind at present is that Go Set A Watchman can be seen as the precursor or To Kill A Mockingbird, the novel that she wrote first, that didn’t quite come up to the mark in the eyes of her editor, who sent her away with some feedback and ideas, that Lee went away and worked on until she gave birth to To Kill A Mockingbird, the book we all know and love.

Atticus as a racist, and apologist for segregation, seems to be the big shock. Perhaps this says more about Americans, or Southerners, than about anyone or anything else. Because if TKAM is a retro-fit of GSAW, then Lee went away and had her Scout in her twenties retell her childhood through the eyes of an innocent – an absolute masterstroke – and she refocused an ageing ex-liberal lawyer into a younger man who was forced to walk his talk and who challenged a town to confront – briefly – its racism. But even here, I think Lee is clear that no magic occurs in Maycomb: the novel is about Scout’s growing up, about her realisation that the world is not a nice place and that your father cannot sustain the idyll of childhood for you…

I shan’t say any more until I’ve read it, which I do intend to do.

Harper Lee: To KIll A Mockingbird

May 2, 2015

9780434020485It’s curious, coming to reflect on a book which I taught every other year throughout my entire career; I haven’t opened it for four years now, and wonder if I’m developing a different perspective on it. The world and his wife know that a ‘new’ novel in some way related to it is due to be published in the summer (Go Set A Watchman) and there has been controversy over whether this involves some sort of exploitation of the ageing writer who may not be fully in control of what is going on.

I have found myself wondering who the book is aimed at (target audience, for all my ex-students!). Dozens of millions of copies have been sold, and they cannot all have been to UK schools preparing students for GCSE. I’m not sure how English departments across the land are going to cope since Secretary of State Gove’s ukase removed it from the specification on the grounds that it’s not English litereature.

Because I’ve always taught it to young people, I’ve come to see them as the ideal audience for the novel (so I would be very interested to hear from anyone who disagrees). To me, it has seemed to speak to them, and deals with issues that have some significance at their stage in life. A main theme is clearly parenting and relationships with parents, and the way in which this links into the need for mutual respect; we see a parent striving to live by his principles, and surely, young people spend some time trying to make sense of their world and they way they feel it should work, as well as the ways in which they propose to relate to it.

The children in the novel are gradually working their way towards self-actualisation and self-realisation in the world, and we see how they are helped by their peers, neighbours and experiences. Most importantly, I think, they come to realise that the world is not always a good and safe place, and that there comes a time when parents cannot protect you from the horrors and nastiness of the world, they are not all-powerful, as young children need to believe: Lee explores a crucial phase of growing-up through the trial and its aftermath, where even Atticus’ faith in the world is badly shaken by the attack on his children.

Because I’ve loved teaching the novel, I’ve found myself looking for its flaws. The lengthy introductory section has often been an issue, with students wanting the story to get a move on, when there are a hundred pages just introducing characters and the town; on the other hand, this has offered the possibility for exploring writer’s choices in terms of how they construct a novel, and after the event, students have been able to accept how Lee has been working as a writer, and the effects she has striven to achieve.

The framing of the storytelling (an older Scout remembering and relating her childhood many years later, perhaps through rose-tinted spectacles, where even the horrors are somewhat subdued) does not help, either, and perhaps allows a rather sentimentalised portrait of a black community through the eyes of a white child. And small-town US is not representative of the whole country.

But hey, it’s a novel! Perhaps semi-autobiographical, depending on what you read, involving characters, certainly places from the author’s own childhood. Lee has things she wishes to say, lessons she wishes to teach – and which I feel she does without becoming didactic – and students’ response was often along the lines of “well, it’s not the sort of book I’d have chosen to read myself, but I’m very glad we studied it”. It’s a novel, and it makes readers think and reflect on themselves and their own lives, which, if you’re a regular reader of these pages, you will know constitutes a good book by my criteria.

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The Joys of re-reading…

December 24, 2013

I know some people who never re-read a book, but many more who do. I’ve always enjoyed re-visiting books I’ve read before, often after quite a number of years, and this post is provoked by my going back to The Master & Margarita; it’s my fourth read, but after a gap of twenty years. I’ll write about the book itself later.

The book I’ve re-read most times is Harper Lee‘s To Kill A Mockingbird, but that’s not really a fair one, because, even though it’s a wonderful book, I’ve only read it so many times from having to teach it as a GCSE examination text – and I always ensured that we did read it through from cover to cover in class, not a word omitted. However, that experience often led me to reflect on what I get from revisiting a much-loved text.

For starters, obviously the first time one reads a book, one’s progress is largely plot-driven, as in we want to know how the story will end, and much detail may well be missed. So, second and further times around, we can concentrate more on the details, the delineation of character, subtleties we may have missed, the writer’s use of language, her/his message to the reader… anything, really. And my enjoyment is certainly enriched. Because I’m a different person twenty years on, my take on a book can be completely different next time around.

Of course, there are many books that I wouldn’t waste eyeball time on a second time. But what do I re-read? Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s quite often old favourites like Sherlock Holmes and other detective stories… time allows me to forget just enough of the plot to allow enough mystery in the next re-read. I often come back to classics like Jane Austen, and deliberately set out to focus on a certain aspect of the writing or the plot that I have become curious about, often due to something else I’ve read in the interim.

What makes a book worth re-reading? It has to have made some kind of deeper impression, I think, either through plot, character or ideas that the writer is playing with; it’s really hard to pin down and surely operates at a gut or emotional rather than a rational level: a book has spoken strongly to my condition in some way or other.

When do I re-read? When I’m bored, often picking up an old favourite wakes me up again; when I’m indecisive – there are so many unread books on the pile all calling to be picked up that I cannot choose and take refuge in one I’ve read before; when I’m on holiday if I’m only taking one book with me and I don’t want the risk of being disappointed by something new.

Often I’m reading something and it will suddenly – through an association perhaps – make me realise that I need to re-read X next, and so I do. And it does often feel like renewing an old acquaintance, or meeting up with an old friend.

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