One of the hardest things about getting older is the decreasing time ahead of you to catch up on reading. Even reading one hundred books a year for the next twenty years is not going to do it. I feel about my To-Be-Read pile as my husband does about the salaries of major league baseball players. He would have to work for one hundred and fifty years or more to make what some of those guys make in one year. It is not a hopeful thought.
But even more haunting than all the books I have never read is the list of all the books I want to re-read. I have reached the age where re-reading reaps rewards. I am not the same person I was thirty years ago nor twenty nor even five. When I re-read an old friend, I get to experience the book in a new way, while catching glimpses of my old self flittering through the pages.
Every New Year I bat around ideas about the next year’s reading plan. Should I commit to not buying any new books this year? Should I find the perfect list and read through it strictly? Should I read through some author’s canon? I did that one year with Shakespeare and this year with J.K. Rowling and I did not rule out the possibility of re-reading both authors again. Shakespeare could stand a yearly return, Rowling, perhaps every ten years. For 2017, I am considering a year of re-reading, only re-reading, and the more I think about it the more I like it. Especially in light of the temptation to neglect old books for new ones that I find on the Internet. Over and over again I believe some rave review of some new novel—only to be disappointed.
They say the brain has definite patterns of nostalgia so that they can predict your age by your Pandora selections. I wonder if that is also true of returning to old book loves? I find myself, more and more, returning to those old loves to examine whether they are still the bright baubles of my youth.
When I re-read an old friend, I get to experience the book in a new way, while catching glimpses of my old self flittering through the pages.
Perhaps it is the act of writing a memoir that has set me to thinking back on so many ancient pathways. I chronicled in my book, Mere Motherhood, that in my early years I was a fan of George MacDonald. His volumes on my shelf, having survived every downsizing purge, sit neatly near where I often sit and read. Almost daily I glance up and think, “I must return to that country soon,” and happy in that thought I move on to more pressing books.
But recently I did return to at least one MacDonald book: Phantastes. Moderns do not give this book rave reviews but it touched me deeply as a young woman and it touched me deeply when I returned to it as an older one.
The first time I read it I was a newly married eighteen-year-old. My husband was taking a class at college titled Oxford Christians and I may as well have taken the class myself because I read every single life-changing book Dr. Kay Ludwigson assigned. And of all the books by all those wonderful Inklings and hangers-on, this book, Phantastes, captured my imagination in a unique way, created a love of George MacDonald, and inspired me to try my hand at writing a fantastical short story.
Phantastes still holds up. George MacDonald is still a good man who writes good books and those books still make me want to be good. I am not the passionate eighteen year old ready to fix all things wrong anymore. At eighteen, the statuesque lady fascinated me. Perhaps I wanted to be loved like that, to be beautiful. This time around I barely noticed her. This time I deeply empathized with the place Anodos had to arrive in order to lose his shadow, his self. I long to get to that place where my shadow, my self, taps me on the shoulder and I brush her away without a thought. What care I for her?
I finished Phantastes as I sat in the emergency room with my husband. What horrors await those who venture to the emergency room without a book? I once found myself in one with Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase. Looking over at my ill son’s choice (he was reading The Grim Reaper by Piet Prins), I told him, “This does not bode well for us.”
But on this day, I had Phantastes, a book about another kind of death.
I was completely sheathed in myself and my book as I hunkered down trying not to notice the horribleness of the humanity around me. These sick, sick people! I wanted to just be me sitting somewhere safe and warm, drinking coffee and eating cookies, watching the hummingbirds and listening to Bach. True, good, beautiful ME.
But George MacDonald gently stripped that bare and showed me the ugliness of my own vision for myself. I thought I had made progress in brushing her aside, this shadow, this self; but there she was in the emergency room hunkered down trying to ignore the back of the tapestry—the place Christ always is. The place where humanity roils and smells and writhes. It is not the healthy who need a physician. Christ was there even when I was trying not to be. He was in my book and in the faces around me.
What are you re-reading?