Monday, March 29, 2010

On Getting Rid of Books and the Pleasures of Re-Reading

I've been cleaning my study over the past few weekends. This is no easy task, alas. It's not that it's big; it's more that it's the most densely packed with stuff, with papers and piles, a desk and a table, 5 bookcases, 2 file cabinets, miscellaneous boxes that have been sitting on the floor since I moved in more than 5 years ago. Every few months I do a purge of the papers, but this time, I actually tackled the boxes and transferred a lot of paper to the recycling and the shredder. While my study is not yet as neat as it was whenever I took that photo (Yes, that's neat, comparatively), it's better than it was.

One thing I did, in the most tentative of ways, was go through my bookcases. Most of my fiction is in my study, from Ab (Diana Abu-Jaber's Arabian Jazz, published while she was at the University of Oregon in the early 90s, the inscription of which calls me her most "delightful, charming, talented, adorable and brilliant" student, which makes me think now that she was excessively giddy to have her first book out) to Sp, Scott Spencer's Endless Love (infinitely better in novel than in movie form). (The remaining fiction is in the hallway.)

I've always wanted a library, and while I may never have the room with the leather armchairs and the fireplace and the sliding ladder--I love the wall of books in my study.

So, it is only with the greatest restraint that I ever get rid of books. Take today's purge of a modest 14 books, for example. Several of the books in the pile are duplicates. A few others are books I can say with some confidence that I'm just not going to read, now or later. These include From Here to Eternity and two Gunter Grass novels, including one, The Flounder, recommended to me by a man who would later break my heart. My bookmark is on p. 88, and at this moment of remove, I'm much more interested in the bookmark--a three tier AC train ticket from Howrah Junction in Calcutta to New Delhi in November, 1994 for a female, age 28--than in the book. My beau had been gone from India for 3 weeks then, and I remember taking it as a sign that this book he'd so recently recommended to me had turned up in a used book stall in Calcutta, with the inscription, "To my dear Frank--May you imbibe these sensual morsels and savor them as you make your way through the jetstream. Love, Mary Ann." Who knows if Frank imbibed the sensual morsels and where he is in the jetstream all these years later. All I know is that I did try--getting to page 88 (even out of a 540 page book) definitely is trying--and maybe the fact that I couldn't make myself read any further was a sign that we were not meant to be.

But I digress. The other books on the pile include a few mysteries, Dreiser's Sister Carrie, Kafka's The Trial and a sappy lesbian novel called Patience & Sarah. I have read all of these books--Dreiser and the sappy lesbian book in college, Kafka in grad school, the mysteries more recently. But they are all on the pile not just because it's been years since I read most of them but because I am quite sure I will not want to read them again.

Because whether a book is re-readable is a key part of both my book acquisition and book retention strategies (if I have such a thing). Sometimes I buy books I've already read, and most of the time I keep books I've already read. It is a huge part of my reading life--and has been since I was a child--to re-read books I've loved and sometimes books I haven't, to see how I feel about them at a different stage of life. (Reading To the Lighthouse in college was a pleasant enough experience; reading it five years later was an astonishing one.)

I know that in some ways, re-reading doesn't make a lot of sense. I will never be able to read all the books I might want to read even once, so re-reading seems almost wasteful, spending precious time on familiar books. But even as I write that, I don't really believe it. I would never be able to read everything I wanted to even if I didn't re-read, and re-reading gives me enough pleasure that I can't imagine forgoing it.

I've been thinking about this recently because when I look through my list of books I've read this year, what I mostly see are mysteries. This is not necessarily a bad thing--I like mysteries--but usually they're interspersed with literary novels rather than with children's books, as they have been this year. The one new literary novel I tried to read I made it halfway through and realized that I just didn't care what happened. I was starting to feel a bit despondent. But I was instantly revived when I learned that Barbara Trapido, the wonderful British/South African novelist whom I adore and admire immensely, has a new book--her first in 7 years--due out soon.

And one thing led to another, and I found myself going to the bookcase in the hallway where the T's live and taking out my copy of Trapido's Noah's Ark. (The cover on the left is the edition I have; the one on the right is one of the newer, spiffier reprints.) It's not that I had really planned to re-read it. It's just that in reading the description of the new novel (Sex and Stravinsky, due out in Britain in May), I noticed that there was a character named Hattie, and I wondered if it was the same Hattie who is age 8 in Noah's Ark, fierce-willed, wild-haired and enamored of sparkly disco roller skates, whose decision to smuggle a 3 week old kitten (a female ginger tabby named Susan, "with just the smallest speckle of white on the end of her tail . . . Just like the tiniest spatter of milk.") in her hand luggage from South Africa back to Britain sets up the novel's conclusion. Since four of Trapido's six previous novels share a common set of characters, I won't be at all surprised if it's the grown-up Hattie we meet in the new novel.

But I took the book out, just to look, and just like the first time I read Noah's Ark--in Varanasi in 2002, after having found the book in a used bookshop in Kathmandu when I'd left India briefly for visa purposes--I found myself inexorably drawn into Trapido's complex, beautifully-detailed domestic world, a world I was so loathe to leave that immediately upon finishing the book the first time, I started it again and read it straight through.

Even having read Noah's Ark multiple times already, I still took great pleasure from it this time. I remembered the main arc of the story--how the marriage of the ethereal, artistic South African-born Ali to the American Jewish medic Noah evolved and then evolves as Ali finds herself drawn back to her past--but I'd forgotten many of the details, and re-discovering them was no less of a pleasure for their familiarity. I found myself engrossed all over again, carrying the book around with me and being irritated by anything that distracted me from it. With re-reading, the anxiety of "what happens next" is gone. There's only the pleasure in rediscovering a once familiar and much loved world.

And my re-read of Trapido has refreshed me, I find. Having returned to where I had been before, I'm more ready to strike again into unfamiliar territory. And a heap of intriguing new books beckons, not just Trapido's new novel, but Maggie O'Farrell's as well, and Katharine Weber's and more. Re-reading, it seems, leads me to reading, and so I hope it will continue.


Biblio Reader said...

I do find it funny that the phrase that lead me here was "lesbian book", and it was just a mention of a lesbian book you didn't like! (I enjoyed Patience and Sarah, but it might be because after tons of depressing lesbian novels, it's refreshing to have a sappy one.)

This is a great post, though. I only keep the books I mean to re-read, too, even though I can't remember the last time I re-read a book. I always mean to, but I never seem to get around to it. I also only really buy books new that I've already read, because I want to support the authors.

PS: I am very jealous of your wall of bookshelves. One day I will get there.

Katharine Weber said...

I have endless admiration for Barbara Trapido, a severely underrated novelist. You might also like Mary Wesley, if you are a Trapido aficionado.

Meanwhile, "in the hallway" is always my bookshelf fate, more or less, as a W. In most bookstores that means around the back, down there, no, over there, bend more, at ankle height.

Sue Dickman said...

Katharine, you are in my hallway, it's true, but at waist height, at least. And only Fay Weldon and Eudora Welty separate you from Mary Wesley, whom I know and love and re-read on occasion! I know that Barbara Trapido is very highly regarded in the UK, but I still don't get why she hasn't really caught on in the US.

And Biblio, thanks for coming by and commenting, even if you were mis-lead! I want to say that I may have even read Patience and Sarah twice, once on my own and then again in a lesbian lit class in college. I don't think I minded it so much the first time, but I remember being quite irritated the second. Meanwhile, the lesbian books I'm not getting rid of include several by Jane Rule, Emma Donoghue and Crybaby Butch by my friend Judy Frank.

Debi Harbuck said...

I rather like the idea of Katharine and Eudora Welty hanging out in your hallway together, keeping an eye on things.

soulsearcher said...

for a wide reader like my brother..and a book collector..books would be a perfect son gift for him from my parents

Alice Hawkings said...

i like the collection of books you have there..i used to keep a lot of books that i dont usually re-read..just for the sake of collecting them ;)

Christine at Origami Mommy said...

What an inspiring and interesting post! I don't usually keep many books - I feel overwhelmed by clutter and the many books we already have for the children. I used to have a huge library of books when I was doing my Ph.D. and maybe I got burned out. But what I do keep - I treasure. And reread, over and over and over - especially when we were living abroad and books were hard to come by. Now we will be living in a larger space at last and so maybe it's time to start collecting books again.

queencake and titangirl said...

i love barbara trapido as well.years ago, a friend gave me " brother of the more famous jack" and i`ve read everything since. thanks for the reminder and have a great weekend.

Clare Dudman said...

I recently read my first Trapido and really enjoyed it. I'm just wondering what your favourite trapido is.

Great post about reading and keeping books and has made me think about my policy. I think it is to get rid of books that I'm definitely not going to read again - but even this is difficult and now have huge piles of books unshelved. I think your library is splendid btw. I do have bookshelves scattered through the house, but I think a wall of shelves is particularly impressive.

Robin Aronson said...

This post made me so happy! And here I was just thinking that I really need to re-read Middlemarch (which I read for the first time last year) even though last week I thought I had to reread Anna Karenina (which I read three times in my twenties) but they're both so long and now I think I have to read Barbara Trapido and Katherine Weber. Thank you!

Sue Dickman said...

Thanks for coming by! I'm delighted to spread the Barbara Trapido love. It's not often that I find a writer that I want to champion so unconditionally. (In 2003, I wrote a piece about her for a short-lived journal, so I immersed myself in all things Trapido for several months. She wrote me several nice emails after it was done, which made me love her even more.)

Claire, my 2 favorites are probably Noah's Ark, which is a more straightforward domestic kind of novel, in the vein of Brother of the More Famous Jack, and Temples of Delight, which is second in the linked sequence and has a bit more of a fairytale quality about it. If Noah's Ark is a marriage novel, as it sort of is, then Temples of Delight is a friendship novel with a friendship between 2 teenage girls at the center of it, even though one of them disappears about 1/4 of the way through.

Robyn, I have Anna Karenina on my to-be-re-read list as well! I only read it once in my 20s, my first time in India, and I don't think I properly appreciated it. I think I need a better translation for the second time around. And I haven't even read Middlemarch once, which I'm a bit embarrassed about. I'm still looking forward to Katharine's newest, and I've liked everything she's written, but I especially liked Triangle, which came out a few years ago.

And I will admit that I love my wall of books as well. Before I moved to this house, I lived in an attic apartment for 7 years with a hallway that was perfect as a library corridor and useless as anything else. So, though I too have bookshelves in my bedroom, the guest room and the dining room (and the kitchen), I was glad to be able to keep a chunk of my fiction together on one wall. It's very satisfying.

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