Books, etc.: Revisiting the Old School

Sarah Seltzer recently wrote on Flavorwire that, as the title of her article says, “We re-read our favorite books as kids and why do we stop as adults?” (http://flavorwire.com/518840/why-do-we-re-read-our-favorite-books-as-kids-and-why-do-we-stop-when-we-get-older)

She says, “[A]ll the reading I do is for a different homework — the social kind. Even popular series like The Hunger Games and the Sookie Stackhouse series make my reading list at least partly to keep me ‘up on the conversation.’”

My experience has been different.

Reading is never homework for me, and really wasn’t when I was a child either. If a friend has read a book that I haven’t, I simply ask what it’s about and what they thought of it. Voilà – conversation.

I certainly did re-read more as a child than as a grown-up. My mother had to insist that when I went to the library, I take out something new in addition to Green Eggs and Ham.

But I – and many of my adult friends – continue to re-read books. Sometimes it’s books we loved as children, and other times it’s children’s literature we’ve just discovered, and still others it’s books we’ve recently encountered. Without even a book group to keep us up to date, my friends and I pass around recommendations. Right now I’m reading Libriomancer on a friend’s advice. Do I care if it’s less trendy than Grey? I do not. Will it make my re-reading list? I won’t know until I finish it.

A while back, I wrote in this blog about “comfort books” – books we return to again and again, for familiarity, for memories, for new insights, for reminders, for nostalgia, or for just plain fun.

We each have our own list of comfort books. My friend Leslie and I both go back to anything by Lois McMaster Bujold (at least yearly) and Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series. I go back to Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy and Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, and David Sedaris, and even nonfiction like The Hot Zone and Angela’s Ashes None of these are beloved books from my childhood, but touchstones of my adult life. (Some of them don’t fit the usual definition of “comfort,” but it is, in a way, comforting to me that they retain that spark of awe when revisited.)

When my tastes change (as they have over the years), my re-reading list changes too, though my old favorites remain there for me. Recently I’ve grown tired of the mediocre memoirs and formulaic novels that sell for $1.99 on B&N, and gone looking for books that fill me with wonder when I first read them and are worth a second – or third or fifth – reading. And I’ve found some. Life of Pi (which I just re-read). The Book Thief. Egg and Spoon.

(Do you have any suggestions for books of similar quality? Please, please leave them in the comments section.)

Not that revisiting one’s childhood reading is a bad thing, for as Seltzer notes, there lurk new insights and a mature appreciation of the author’s craft.

Two books from my earlier reading days recently crossed my path again. These are books that endured multiple readings in my teen years – To Sir, With Love and Up the Down Staircase – both tributes to my enduring interest in education (as I would now say) or (at the time) my desire to become a teacher.

Neither book was a waste of time to re-read, and neither, although familiar, spoke to me in the same way it did all those years ago. Re-reading them was both comforting and newly challenging. They stood up to their repeat performances.

Both startled me by their references to high school students as “children.” I suppose to the school system they may be, but I think of many if not most of them as young adults, or at least kids or teens. (I also was taken aback by the word “pupil.” Is that still used in some parts of the country? To me, they are students.)

Some aspects were new to me. As a teen (raised in a lily-white suburb and attending a lily-white school), I noticed but missed the depth of the comments on race in To Sir, With Love. While I understood that Up the Down Staircase highlighted the bureaucracy of the education system in a large city high school, I was clueless about the application of that to all schools, even mine.

“Re-reading offers something that few other cultural experiences do, really: a mix of gentle stability and sharp new insight,” Seltzer says. “Taking the time to re-experience the art we loved best in our past can be a way of spending time with ourselves, and though its rewards are mostly unseen, that may make them all the more important to seek out.”

Now that I can’t argue with.

But I would add that my re-read list keeps growing longer as I grow older. It’s not just childhood favorites that are worth re-reading, but any book that has become beloved to me. And falling in love with a book is definitely not something I’ve left behind. New love can happen at any age.

Now where did I put my copy of Green Eggs and Ham? Ah, there it is – right next to the Lois Bujold.

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