I have always had a guilty secret when it comes to my reading habits: I am a chronic re-reader. There are certain books which I have revisited countless times. Of course, this is really nothing to be ashamed of. We all have favourite novels which stand the test of time, however old we get, however much our lives have changed since we last picked them up.
Nonetheless, I have never felt proud of myself for rereading; it seems a cop-out to me, especially in a family of annoyingly voracious readers, to fall back on the books I know so well instead of using the time to read something new. Life is too short, I have often reprimanded myself, to waste time like this.
But this Christmas vac I have been easier on myself. Returning home emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted after a weird and difficult term, I came to the conclusion that now was not the time to finally read Proust. I did not have the will to challenge myself at all. And so, in the early weeks of the vac, I found myself reaching for familiar volumes.
I began with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, with which I first crossed paths at the tender age of 15. This is Tartt’s divine debut novel: a tale of premeditated murder by a group of elegant and amoral Classics students-cum-Bacchants in the midst of the Vermont snow.
I returned to The Secret History for the same reason I loved it at 15: its intoxicating style. The actual themes of the novel – unreason, charisma, mysticism, et cetera – are always interesting enough, but it is really in its aesthetics that it is so pleasing. The haunting descriptions of the New England winter, the finely delineated character portraits, the spare, caustic dialogue: at a time when we are all confined to a more mundane, less than beautiful life, I can see no shame in rereading for beauty alone.
Yet The Secret History was just the starting gun for a period of unabashed rereading over the vac. I ripped through A.A. Gill’s sublime memoir of alcoholism, food and dyslexia, Pour Me, for about the fourth time, with no shame and pure delight. I laughed again at the biting humour of Tom Wolfe’s 80s satire of Wall Street and New York, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Most recently, I revisited Amos Oz’s lyrical 1960s classic My Michael, a tale of fading love and marriage in the tumult of the young State of Israel.
This inadvertent project of rereading and re-evaluating has brought me a small degree of wisdom. I have reaffirmed for myself the value of reading old favourites for their own sake, at any age. I have, in light of the difficulties of present conditions for myself and everyone else, seized once again on the simple joy of reading as a cure for many woes. It is still possible that Hilary 2021 will be the term I finally do read Proust, though I wouldn’t hold your breath. I plan to discover and love many new books this year, but I will not regret the time I have spent with old ones.
As for now, in the gloom of the third wave but against hopeful predictions of more raucous times, I’m going back for the millionth time to that clichéd choice, The Great Gatsby, as it comes out of copyright. If I cannot go back to Oxford for a few more weeks, I’ll settle for West Egg.
With illustration by May Moorwood.