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.