To Read or Re-Read: That Is The Question
In a recent episode of the CBS news show, 60 Minutes, there was a long-ish piece on the Vatican Library. "There are more books in here than the human mind can fully comprehend," said a Vatican Library priest. As he spoke, the camera cut to the miles upon miles of shelves, filled to bursting with books, both modern and ancient.
Ancient as in 2000 years old ancient.
The mind reels, taking in the sheer number of books on those shelves. What would it take to even begin to sort through them all? To read them all?
To be honest, I get that same overwhelmed feeling in my own house sometimes. My husband is a serial-book-buyer. He buys all the books — new ones, old ones, first editions, signed copies. They pile up atop already-full bookshelves in our "library." They pile up on my nightstand and in the corner of our bedroom. They pile up in our daughter's room.
Hell. We've even devoted two shelves of our linen closet to books. They're piled up in there as well.
We want to read them all. We plan to read them all.
But still, sometimes at night, when I've finished a book and am looking for something else to read, I roam the shelves, browsing with a fingertip and my sleepy eyes, and I think, "Man. I have nothing to read."
That's when, most often, in my need to relax and mellow out, I reach for an old favorite. Something comfy, like an old sweater or my favorite pair of jeans. Something I can curl up with, snuggle with. Something that will carry me from wakefulness into sleep. Something with no surprises. Something I already love.
You see, I'm a serial re-reader. I read the same books, over and over and over. Every year, I read some of them. Every month, sometimes, I pick up one of my go-to books.
Jane Austen. Anne Frank (I know). Harper Lee. Francis Hodgson Burnett. Louisa May Alcott.
These are the books I've read since childhood. These books are my warm blankets. My hot chocolates. My red wine.
You see, I'm also an insomniac. And I've learned, through the years, that new books can spark bouts of insomnia that lose me sleep for days. Weeks, even.
New books are, for me, often exhausting.
You know how it goes, right? You're reading a book, a new book, something that twists and turns and keeps you reading until the wee hours of the morning. You spend the next day empty-headed and exhausted, but it's worth it because you made progress on the book. You saw where it was going, and when it was done, you were ready to sleep.
And in the end, that one night of missed sleep doesn't matter. You'll go to bed early the next night to catch up. It's all good. Right?
Wrong. At least for me.
If I stay up reading, once those wee hours hit and I should be ready to sleep, I...don't. Something in me clicks over into No Sleep Land. I'll put my book down, and toss and turn throughout the night. I'll turn over plot points in my head, wandering through the story this way and that. What if he had...? What if she had...? What if they'd...?
It's a dangerous state of mind for me. One bad night in my world tends to lead to another, and then another, until a single, exciting book has caused me to lose four or five nights of sleep...all because I can't let go.
For two summers straight, the first two books in Ben H. Winters' The Last Policeman series did that to me. For two Julys, I stopped sleeping, almost entirely, as those books dug their way under my skin, keeping me awake night after night after night.
I'm terrified to pick up the third book in the series. I'm terrified to even buy it.
Because insomnia is my Kryptonite. My Kahn. Those long nights awake are terrible. I get sad and lonely, tired of being by myself. Of being with myself. Tired of my own stupid brain.
Those are the times I turn to my old friends. My old books. They never let me down. I pick them up, open to any page, and start reading. They quiet me down in ways nothing else can.
Sometimes I wonder if I should spend the rest of my life re-reading these books.
If nothing else, I'll finally get some sleep.
It'll never work, though. As a writer, I need to read new books.
When 2014 came to an end, I was asked to contribute my top five reads of the year. I started leafing through my bookshelves, my Kindle files. And I found out: shit. I did far more re-reading than new-reading in 2014. It was a struggle to come up with five new books I liked enough to add to that list. Had I not received a couple books from my husband as early holiday gifts, and had he not pressed me to actually read them, and had I not done a bunch of reading for Bookshots here...my entire list would've been re-reads.
I hung my head in shame.
I need to branch out.
Having a six-year-old who's a voracious reader doesn't help in my branching out scheme. I buy for her the books I loved as a child, and then I find myself "forced" to re-read them. To screen them, so to speak. To make sure they're appropriate.
(Let's be honest: I don't censor. They're always appropriate.)
Last year, I re-read Lois Lowry's Number the Stars. Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinke in Time. E. L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I re-discovered a red sweater with heart-shaped buttons I longed to own when I was very small. I re-discovered the terror of a midnight run through a forest, while Nazi's search for a young girl's best friend. I re-discovered the Tesseract. Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which. I re-discovered my love for Calvin O'Keefe and Charles Wallace (funny that I married a Charles...). And I re-discovered all the myriad reasons why, ever since I was very young, my very first choice for "favorite place on Earth" has and always will be the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.
Oh, the re-discoveries I made! It was beautiful and wonderful! And now, when my daughter reads these books, I'll be able to talk to her about them, in depths I've not been able to for years.
I also re-learned a very important lesson: great children's literature doesn't dumb down stories. It doesn't talk down to kids. Those books are every bit as complex and layered as some of the greatest adult literature out there today.
If I ever write children's stories (I've got a good one planned, if ever I find time to write it!), I plan to remember these lessons. I plan to write to kids, about kids, exactly as I would to adults, about adults. There's no need to treat kids like idiots who need to be spoon-fed everything. If I've a story to tell, and the time with which to tell it, I'll TELL it, by God.
That was an important lesson.
Re-reading taught it to me.
But it can't all be re-reading. Remember that. I need to remember that too. Had I not been given All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, I wouldn't have found the exact book doing the exact same things with plot and story and timelines and prose that I've been trying to do in my own writing. I wouldn't have finally seen what's possible. Those short, tight chapters. The stories within stories within stories. The simple, elegant prose. That's what I want to do, and this book has given me the blueprint by which to do it.
Had I not read something new, I wouldn't have known that I simply have to work harder — write harder — and keep trying to accomplish my own goals. That book taught me that my dreams for great new literature are attainable. Doerr did it. So can I!
In 2015, I resolve to read. Read more. Read often.
I don't plan to stop re-reading, either. My long, restless nights sometimes require those old books — those old friends — to get me through till morning.
But I think I'll try to read more new stories, too. To keep my finger on the pulse of what's selling, and, more importantly, what's possible.
2015 is definitely looking up. I can't wait to see what stories I can find!
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