The Pleasures (and Necessities) of Re-reading by Susann Cokal
When I was a child, I had no idea how many books there were in the world. I hoped there would be a lot of them; sometimes I imagined a version of a fairy tale in which I spread a blanket on the ground, whistled through my teeth, and watched a stack materializing. But I personally owned only about two dozen at most, and a good many of those were in Danish—sent by relatives who believed that my mother was raising my sister and me to be bilingual (she wasn’t). Any book was precious; one in English was especially so. We didn’t get to libraries much, and I needed at least a book a day.
So what I could read, I read over and over, and the story of myself as a writer is of a re-reader. Rereading is a deep and intimate experience that gets lost if we’re constantly reaching for something new. Writing is reading is rereading, and there’s the pleasure and the agony in it; we have to look at our own words many times and see them as new. (So do our editors.)
In a way, my childhood Danish library was a blessing; I used to look at a book’s pictures and tell their stories, insisting that I was in fact translating what was on the page. I prided myself on being able to tell the story the same way (the “correct” way) each time. Of course there were some persistent mistakes, as when I misidentified the luminous (luciferous) figure standing with Jesus on a cliff overlooking a plain. “And then God told Jesus how much he loved him,” I said each time someone asked about that book. Whoops. Well, it was good to believe in the love.
My collection of books in English was spotty and outdated. My mother used to shop the neighborhood yard sales, and since she was foreign she didn’t recognize any of the titles, just picked up whatever seemed in roughly the right age range: lesser-known works of Louisa May Alcott; Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, all three volumes of Heidi, and some now-forgotten girl novels such as Rosemary. Mostly books about settling in to do housework. Which, in fact, was sorely needed around our house.
I didn’t love all those girls (Pollyanna, grr), but I was grateful to them for showing up. And when I got to go to an actual library, let alone a bookstore, I really went to town: Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Edward Eager, Beverly Cleary, C. S. Lewis, Nancy Drew (everyone knew she was really writing her own stories), Elizabeth Enright, Lois Duncan … What I loved, I loved a lot, which meant rereading a lot. And every time I dipped in—even if I had just finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and opened it to the start again—I saw something new, maybe something I hadn’t understood the first time through but had grown into during the last month or minutes. The very best books are always reinventing themselves, just as your beloved (hi, sweetheart) is both familiar and constantly new.
Even if a book didn’t belong to me, once I’d read it a half dozen times, I considered it to be part of my personal collection. I memorized parts so I could “read” them when they weren’t physically at home with me. There were even times I had an opportunity to go to a book fair or a library and I refused, or I went and acquired books with which I was already familiar. My love and loyalty run deep.
As I got older, it was sometimes intimidating to reapproach a book I loved the first time. It’s like a second date; you wonder if you’ll still feel that spark, that breathless eagerness to turn the page, combined with the besotted desire to linger over sentences here and there.
Rereading becomes a relationship. A friendship. And it’s creative and evolving, as the books make you and then through your eyes they become something else again. The best side of the half-magic coin is the books you didn’t adore the first time, maybe because other people insisted too eagerly that they’d be right up your alley: For me those are The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Scarlet Letter, the works of E. Nesbit. Only on rereading did I fall in love, and I’ve read each of them at least a dozen times.
For forty years, I’ve taken comfort in Maud Hart Lovelace’s Deep Valley books because they unfurl in a bright and happy world. This past summer, in melancholy middle age, I reread them all, and I found a thread of wistfulness winding through the Valley. I noticed what a hard time Tacy often has, and how Mr. Ray needs to get off his feet as he ages, and most of all, how Betsy ends up reproaching herself at the end of every book for not quite living up to her potential. And I have to say, I love Betsy and the Crowd even more for what I see in them now.
So how many times have I read and reread and moved around the paragraphs of this post? I want to tell you and yet I don’t: Many, many times. It’s been almost impossible to prune for the word limit. I described specific books and authors I’ve loved as an adult, and the ones I reread eight or nine times for my PhD dissertation or for classes I taught. The fairy tales, the biographies, the books about how to make things like the miniature houses with which I also tell stories.
But I cut those paragraphs. Rereading my own cotton-picking words over and over to find the best ones—that’s been the only way to summon this feast to the blanket. And it is piled high with books from my childhood.
Susann’s first young adult novel, The Kingdom of Little Wounds, received several national awards, including a Michael L. Printz Honor. Her books for adults are Mirabilis and Breath and Bones, and she has published shorter work in a variety of literary journals and anthologies such as Electric Lit, Writers Ask, and The New York Times Book Review.
Her new novel, Mermaid Moon, is out as of March 3, 2020.
Her home on the web is susanncokal.net.