Show of hands–who rereads books?
I don’t, as a rule, reread novels. My TBR list is miles long, and as long as new books are being written, it’s not getting any shorter. I know I won’t live forever either, so a book has to be pretty darn special for me to return to it. There’s a very short list of books I’ve reread and it’s always for different reasons. Lately though, I find myself pining for books I’ve already read for the comfort of the known, with so much going on that’s uncertain, so I may be dipping into my read list again before too long. I’ve also gotten just as nostalgic for childhood favorites such as hot dogs and macaroni and cheese so if Covid doesn’t get me, the salt might.
The five books I’ve reread, with reasons:
Reason # 1 “a book that made me think”
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
When I first read The Book of Strange New Things I immediately wanted to talk to people about it, but I couldn’t get anyone else to read it! I could not stop thinking about the story and what it meant. So I had to just read it again. It’s like it is too sci-fi for people who like literary fiction, and not sci-fi enough for people who like sci-fi, so it’s exactly what I like. It takes place in space, there’s some light space travel briefly mentioned but it doesn’t labor over the ship’s mechanics, and space beings are central to the plot as characters. (“Aliens” seems inappropriate since the humans in this case would be the aliens.) It is not really sci-fi in the sense that it doesn’t involve the kind of world building and fantastic technology that serious fans of the genre enjoy, and it spends a lot of time on character building and philosophical questions. I would recommend it to people who read Kurt Vonnegut, China Miéville, and Margaret Atwood, but also say they “don’t read science fiction”.
Reason # 2 “a book that made me want to stay up all night talking on the phone to it”
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, the comedic debut of Mira Jacob (Good Talk), spans three decades of a family’s move from India to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and how they transition through the limbo of grief. We follow the deeper transition of Amina and her self-realizations within the lovingly chaotic embrace of family and tweaked traditions. Mira Jacob creates magic from heartbreak in this heartily satisfying story (like really good soup!), that I truly did not want to part with. I felt like a part of her family and wanted Amina as my best friend, so I spent another 400 pages with her.
Reason # 3 “a book that comes in different versions”
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
Critically-acclaimed, Booker-finalist, bicameral How to be Both came with a peculiar feature: two different versions of the book were published. Half of the books begin the story from the perspective of Francescho, a 15th century Italian painter, the other half from the POV of Georgia, a 21st century teenage girl in London. While the two versions are identical in words and page count, the only difference being that part I and part II are reversed, how their stories intertwine is affected by the switch, which gives the reader quite a different experience depending on the version they happen to end up with. Of course I had to read it both ways to experience this, as Ali SMith was clearly saying something and I was so enamored of the book on my first reading I wanted to know what it was she was saying. You’ll have to read it for yourself, both ways, to find out.
Reason # 4 “A book that made me ugly cry”
Heavy by Kiese Laymon:
A good ugly cry is comforting sometimes! At least, and maybe this makes me odd, I find it comforting to be that in my feelings over a book. Heavy is quite possibly the most intense emotional experience I’ve had while reading a book, and one of my most recommended books of all time. Written as a letter to his mother, Heavy is moving and powerful memoir that explores his experience as a black man growing up in Mississippi, his education, body image, and race, and his fraught relationship with his mother. While it deals in very painful subject matter, it’s also incredibly beautiful. Laymon’s wordcraft is difficult for me to describe, for I lack even a whisper of his gift with words. It’s like having your brain massaged by really, really good writing, and then also having all your best words taken away by the experience. I had to go in for a second reading after reading his novel, Long Division, that came before Heavy, and recognizing elements from his life in the story.
Reason # 5 “An old favorite in a new translation”
Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
Roadside Picnic was the book that turned me from a “person who doesn’t read sci-fi” into a full on Fan. An advanced alien race came to earth, temporarily set up shop somewhere in Canada and has since evacuated, and left behind dangerous and mysterious alien stuff. Terror ensues as people known as “stalkers” try to collect to use and study the extraterrestrial refuse, with sometimes catastrophic results. I had a battered, second hand paperback of the out of print original translation (with foreword by Theodore Sturgeon!), the original was first published in the Soviet Union in 1971, and passed it to all of my sci-fi loving friends. There just didn’t seem to be anything else quite like it. It was so unsettling and lingered in my thoughts for a long time after that first reading. Once the new translation came out, having been restored to its uncensored glory, I was first in line for a copy and read the whole thing that same day. It gets under your skin.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s creepy and nearly wordless film Stalker, and apparently a video game of the same name, were based on the novel, and I heard a rumor of a new Russian TV series based on the book and have my fingers crossed it will make its way to us someday. In the meantime, I may read it a third time.
What’s funny is, while I rarely reread a novel, I reread poetry over and over again. I’ve read Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith literally dozens of times. In fact, my eyes well up on the same exact line on the first page every time I read it. I’ll read poems until I have them memorized.