Friday, 14 November 2014

On re-reading

My favourite avatar 'at' St Anne's College
I've had little time to read new novels while I've been settling in at my new job at St Anne's College, which I'm really enjoying so far (the college have made a fantastic video for potential undergraduates, which sums up its friendly atmosphere. You can see it here). However, having picked up a new selection of books from my Wiltshire library (i.e. my father's house) when moving to Oxford, I've been able to do a bit of re-reading for once. I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed it. I'm usually separated from the vast majority of my book collection, so haven't been able to indulge in selecting the novels that appeal to me at the time. Re-reading straddles the gap between 'serious' and 'trashy' reading by allowing me to look again at books that I enjoyed the first time, and thought were worthwhile, but demand less effort now I'm reading them again. It's odd that re-reading has become so rare for me, because it was a very important feature of my reading life as a child and adolescent. Even in my early twenties, it was unusual for me to own a book that I had only read once. Now I own... a fair few...

I started my recent set of re-reads with Jung Chang's Wild Swans. This memoir was a great favourite among some girls at my school when I was about fifteen, and I'm ashamed to say that I've learnt little more about Chinese history since. However, regardless of how accurate or representative the text is, I was impressed with Chang's sheer ability as a storyteller, especially as the story is not told in her first language. She has a gift for isolating the telling detail from a confusing, complex mass of misery, and in bringing the reader into a very different world rather than distancing them from it. As a teenager, I remember relating strongly to teenaged Jung and her thirst for knowledge (despite our situations not being remotely alike!) and it was one of the first times I really appreciated the idea of learning for its own sake, rather than for an examination. Following this successful re-visiting with Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing was a bit of a disappointment. It seemed a good idea to read a book about re-reading as I was trying to do more of it, but I didn't enjoy Hill's account of a year of reading as much as I had the first time. The main reason for this is purely personal - Hill and I seem to have entirely opposite instincts about key texts and authors, so frequently her statements left me spluttering. (How can she instantly exclude Twelfth Night from a list of favourite Shakespeare plays? How can she never have read Villette?) This is hardly Hill's fault, but I found her narrative difficult to warm to for other reasons as well. She tends to judge, rather than celebrate, and the idea of a year of re-reading swiftly vanishes, so her chapters become quite disconnected.

Re-reading Robin McKinley's Rose Daughter, a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, is always a treat. Like Wild Swans, it's one of those novels that I read at such a formative age that it's perhaps almost too important to me. And yet, it's so beautiful, and so true. I can't think of a better example of a novel you can truly step into and live inside. There will certainly be readers who loathe it - the pace is very slow, and the reinvention of the Beast's character, in particular, is controversial in many respects. Nevertheless, I love it. I'm also re-reading Sarah Waters's Affinity at the moment, and enjoying going back to a novel that is very different from her more recent works. I'm impressed by her facility with pastiche; she uses historical detail and language consistently and heavily, but it's never heavy-handed. My final re-read so far has been an entirely different kind; Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead, the sequel to Ender's Game. Reading this in light of recent events has been an odd experience; Card is so bigoted, but the morality of the novel itself is so interesting, and generally sound. I was continuously wondering how he can hold such narrow-minded opinions while espousing, via Ender, a very broad-minded world view. There are tiny hints of Card's own views on marriage, for example, in Speaker, but they're incredibly minor compared to the way he allows his own perspective to distort his later works (I'm not saying this simply because I disagree with Card; I think any author, however noble-minded, who allows their own hobby-horses to distort the stories they are telling to the degree that Card does later in the Ender series has a problem).

Reading this over, it strikes me that these books, with the exception of the Susan Hill, were all books that I first read between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. This seems to me to be fitting. I've just moved to a new place for the first time since I was eighteen years old, and it feels right to try to reconnect with a bit of that teenage desire to branch out.

No comments:

Post a Comment