At the end of the summer I attended a parlor game, a book group, where one of the questions was, “Which novels have you read more than once?”
It took a while to get to my turn, and while I was listening to the rest of the circle, I spied the the host’s children climbing up the back stairs to their beds. —With their nighttime reading.
I craned my neck to read the titles of the storybooks they were clutching, and I could tell from fifteen yards away, just from a glimpse, that at least one favorite was something by Maurice Sendak.
When you’re pre-puberty, every book you read is a book you’ve read not twice, but a million times! Every parent who reads their children bedtime tales knows how it feels to want to kill yourself before you have to recite “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” one more time, or in my generation, “James James Morrisson Morrison Weatherby George Dupree.”
But we read these verses to our little beans again and again, and you think to yourself, “One day I shall miss this.”
I don’t remember when my mom stopped reading to me at bedtime. With my own daughter, I think it was around second grade, when she could certainly read to herself, but still loved being read to. She liked my narration so much in “Eloise” that I once recorded it on a tape cassette so she could hear it while I was on book tour. And Charge It, Please!
I think I lasted until Junior High before I started requiring unending variety in my reading habits. Until then, I was happy to read “Harriet the Spy” or “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Paul Zindel’s “The Pigman” one. more. time. The familiarity of a great novel is one of the most sensual pleasures I know. You never stop gleaning from it; it cradles you in your blanket.
This summer, my 53rd, I discovered repetitive novel reading again. Two things happened: I went to see the Coen Brother’s revival of “True Grit,” loved the dialog, and resolved to read the novel. I also went on a book tour for five months where insomnia in a new hotel or guest bedroom was my constant threat.
What a discovery. I could not get enough of Mattie Ross’s opening lines—
“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”
—as told by author Charles Portis. When I discovered Donna Tartt was reading "True Grit" on an audio edition, I completely lost interest in everything else and became as maniacal as any three year old who will only listen to “The Cat in the Hat.”
I would say I have read or listened to “True Grit,” and another Portis title, “The Dog of the South,” about twenty times each this summer and I am not yet REMOTELY sick of them. I will never tire. Furthermore, their stickiness has raised the bar on my standards— I don’t want to read another new book unless it warrants repeated incantations; I want to be that insatiable child again, every time I lay down with a new tall tale.
How did reading get to be such a faster-pussycat-hurry-up activity? We listen to favorite songs over and over without apology or distraction. They make us feel good, no explanation necessary. The same is true of movies— no one in the family complains when you want to watch "The Big Lebowski" or "Lost in Translation" or Season 1 of "Law and Order" over and over again. It’s understood.
But with books, there’s this myth that it takes a "long time" to get through one, and that you have to gather speed and keep moving, keep turning the pages, ever-new, ever-seeking, in order to read all the classics, all the must’s, all the new year specials, all the awards. If you pause to linger, you will MISS OUT, lose your rank, become some doddering old fool who hasn’t moved on since Margaret Spoke to God.
But it really isn’t like that, is it? I can read most novels in a bedtime or two; if they’re entertaining, you don’t want to put them down. Why do I then cast them aside, if they were memorable? Ever-lasting enchantment shouldn't be so quickly tossed. Why not linger in your bubble bath if the water’s still warm and no one’s pounding on the door?
This realization has made me think differently about my own writing. I wonder if anyone has read one of my books more than once— that would be the greatest praise. My YA author friend Jill Wolfson heard out my theories, and she said, “You should write books for kids. There is nothing like getting a fan letter that starts out with, ‘I have now finished your book for the tenth time…’”
I looked at her with slobbering envy— yes, yes, that’s what I want! I want my poetry in people’s dreams, I want to stick around like a spell! I want fragments of my novels blurted out by fifth-graders and people in comas.
Justly, the key to writing page-worn novels is reading more of them, I’m certain of it. Typing them out is my new sugar snack. I dare you: sit down at a keyboard and type the entire first chapter of something you adore. I’ve been returning to my youthful pleasures with a vengeance. Right now I’m listening to Dashiell Hammett’s "Red Harvest," which I first read in high school and within whose pages I also apparently cleaned a lid of pot— I keep finding all these little seeds. I’m tilling it for second time in four days, and it’s a beauty.
Animated GIF inspired by True Grit, conjured in Silver & Gold or Death in Pursuit of It