Over the last several months, I've been re-reading my old, dusty copies of memoirs, letters, and essays by women writers and artists -- works that I first encountered in decades past, when I was much younger. Returning to them now, I seem to be reading different books than the ones I remember -- although, of course, it's not the books that have changed with the passing of time but me. Vera Brittain's Testament of Experience and Testament of Friendship, Nancy Hale's The Life in the Studio, Dorothea Tanning's Between Lives, May Sarton's various memoirs, Madeleine L'Engle's Crosswick Journals, essays by Carolyn Heilbrun, Susan Cooper, and Virginia Woolf' -- these were all written by women close to my current age, give or take a few years, so my dialogue with them now is a conversation of peers, not age to youth...and there are other differences as well.
In Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton recounts the experience of buying and renovating a late-18th century house in a tiny village in rural New Hampshire, where she crafted a life dedicated to poetry, nature's beauty, and solitude. I first read her book in my early 30s when I, too, had just bought my first house: a 16th century cottage in a tiny village in rural England; and I, too, was deep in the work of renovation. My previous decade, like Sarton's, had been rootless and urban; I'd never lived any one place for long; and moving from New York and Boston to Devon was as complicated and impractical as it was romantic. I was single then, liberated from a long, confining early relationship; I was back on my feet after two cancer operations; and I was determined to re-build my life as I wanted, now that it was wholly mine again.
What Sarton's book gave me was validation of my decision to settle down and make a real home without marriage or children as my goal. Though life had changed for women between the time Sarton bought her first house in 1955 and I bought mine in 1992, it hadn't changed entirely. Single women were still quietly pitied for our presumed failure to find a mate, even those of us with rich romantic lives who simply enjoyed living alone. (I should mention that during the winter months I shared a house with a friend in the Arizona desert, so although I valued my independence, I was hardly a hermit.) A colleague fretted that I was in danger of "turning into Virginia Woolf, " by which he meant an accomplished but dried-up old spinster. (He was as oblivious of my adventurous love-life as he was of the fact that Woolf was married.) The idea of single women as either sexless or desperate was proving a remarkably hard one to shift.
Plant Dreaming Deep chronicles the reclamation of Sarton's farmhouse, the planting of its extensive garden, and the slow adjustment of an intensely intellectual woman to the seasonal rhythms of country life. The book is a celebration of the bittersweet virtues of solitude, independence, and self-reliance -- and yet Sarton, too, was not a hermit. Her life was amply stocked with friendship, romance, travel, adventure, and the international web of connection arising from a long literary career. She spent time with lovers and friends in Boston, she taught, she travelled around the country giving readings ... but she did her best work in solitude, and work was her priority.
A woman living alone and unmarried by choice, privileging her writing over other social bonds, was rare enough when Plant Dreaming Deep was published in 1968 that it caused something of a stir. "Sarton chose the way of solitude with all its costs," wrote Carolyn Heilbrun (in an essay published in 1982), "and heartened others with the news that this adventure, this terrible daring, might be endured."
This was a message that many in Sarton's generation hungered for and the book was a popular success, appealing particularly to women who had given up their own work after marriage and children and who had little solitude themselves. They romanticized the life she led, imagining a tranquil idyll of poetry and music and flowers from the garden, not the hard labor and professional ups and downs of life as a working writer. Sarton herself came to feel that she'd painted too rosy a picture of her sojourn in the country -- and so her next memoir, The Journal of Solitude, aimed to set the record straight. In this book, she recorded her doubts, her creative struggles, her professional frustrations, her poignant loneliness. The woman who emerges in these pages is prickly, moody, often exasperating...and thoroughly human.
When I first read The Journal of Solitude, I appreciated its craft and intent -- in many ways it's a better book than the first -- but I was, I remember, dismayed by the strain of bitterness that runs all through it. I could not help but wonder: would the independence I deeply craved leave me this bitter at Sarton's age? As I finished the book, I felt obscurely let down, for it seemed to suggest that the price for a work-focused life was high indeed.
Returning to Sarton two decades later, however, I see what I somehow failed to see before: The Journal of Solitude is not a book about the loneliness of the single life, it's a book about depression. This fact is so glaringly obvious that it's hard to fathom how I missed it back then...but at that time I didn't yet know the signs of long-term, clinical depression, whereas now I know them all too well due to a close family member who has suffered beneath its crushing weight.
And with this knowledge, I find myself reading an entirely different book this time, with different insights, observations, explications, and resonances. Instead of dismayingly bitter, Sarton comes across as irascible, yes, but also remarkably honest, tenacious, and brave, pushing through the grey clouds to return to the light not once but again and again. The pain that the poet is never quite rid of is no longer solitude's dark twin; it's the pain of the illness she is coping with, making her periods of solitude both necessary and healing.
Likewise, Madeleine L'Engle's four Crosswick Journals speak to me now as they never did before, written in a language of age and experience in which I've become more fluent.
When I read the first three books back in the mid 1980s (the fourth was not yet published then), I found the author's life interesting but alien: her glamorous parents, her international upbringing, her marriage to a Broadway actor and soap opera star, her children, her dogs, her homes in New York City and rural Connecticut...it was all so removed from the life I led as a struggling young writer/editor that we inhabited different worlds altogether, even though we actually lived within blocks of each other on Manhattan's Upper West Side. I read L'Engle's journals with a certain detachment, for other than our shared taste for fantastic fiction we seemed to have very little in common. I underlined a few choice passages about writing, then put the books back on the shelves. I kept them, but I had no urge to re-read them until this year.
I opened the first volume, A Circle of Quiet, expecting to re-read it with the same mixture of interest and distance, the same wide gulf between the author's focus (marriage, children, church) and mine. But L'Engle had changed in the intervening years; the very words printed on the page had changed; and yes, I know that is quite impossible but so it actually seemed to me, for now her books had much to say that I was finally ready to hear.
A quarter of a century has passed; I am roughly the age that she was then; and, surprisingly enough, her life and mine are not so far very apart now. I, too, have an actor husband, a family, a house in the country, a shelf full of published books...all of it on a much smaller scale than L'Engle's, yet close enough to share similar concerns about juggling conflicting commitments to family, community, and creative work. My life took an unexpected turn when I married my husband and became a parent; now I come to these books from a whole new direction, through a door I could not even see, much less pass through, when I first read them. In this re-reading, it is only the third volume (a meditation on Christianity, and how L'Engle's faith intersects with her work as a writer) that I still read with my early detachment...and who knows? In another quarter century a door might open into that one too.
I am speaking here of books that reward re-visiting, revealing new aspects of themselves each time you return: Vera Brittain's fascinating, heart-rending memoirs; Virginia Woolf's brilliant diaries; Terry Tempest William's gorgeous books, falling somewhere between memoir and nature writing. (If I expanded this essay into fiction, then authors ranging from Jane Austen to Ursula Le Guin would certainly be mentioned here.)
Other books, however, remain stuck in time -- eloquent and profound at one stage of life, but stubbornly mute when you try to go back; the door that stood open for the person you were has slammed shut for the person you are. Anaïs Nin's diaries fall into that category for me -- so influential in my late 20s that it's no overstatement to say I would not be the woman I am without them, and yet I can no longer read Nin with that youthful hunger and uncritical pleasure. This doesn't diminish her work for me; the diaries remain a classic of the form, and they still have a place of honor on my shelves. But some books -- and it's different books for every reader -- seem to belong to a certain age, a certain stage of one's development. Re-reading them is an exercise in nostalgia rather than one of discovery, and although that has its pleasures too, it is a melancholy kind of pleasure, tinted the sepia of loss.
Every so often, however, I take Nin's diaries down from the shelves again, breathing in the scent of the young woman I once was. Perhaps one day a new door back into those books will stand ajar.
"I, too, feel the need to reread the books I have already read," remarks a character in Italo Calvino's great novel If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, "but at every rereading, I seem to be reading a new book, for the first time. Is it I who keep changing and seeing new things of which I was not previously aware? Or is reading a construction that assumes form, assembling a great number of variables, and therefore something that cannot be repeated twice according to the same pattern?"
I'd say that it's both those things, at different times, for different books, for different readers.
Rebecca Mead's The Road to Middlemarch: My Life With George Eliot is an especially lovely tribute to the fine art of re-reading. "There are books," she writes, "that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree."
Patricia Meyer Spacks notes that the pleasure of re-visiting our favorite books is one of mingled familiary and surprise. "By definition, rereading reacquaints us with the familiar. It does so, often, by defamiliarizing. The book we thought we knew challenges us to incorporate fresh elements in our understanding. The book we loved in childhood provides delights we never anticipated. We thought we already knew what it was about, but now it tells us that it is about something else. As our memories inform our understanding, that understanding changes. We who love rereading love it for its surprises as well as for its stability." (I recommend her book On Rereading if you'd like to explore this subject further.)
"We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading," C.S. Lewis states provocatively in his essay "On Stories" (1947). "Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Til then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words."
Read it again, children demand when we close their favorite storybooks. Read it again. And again. And again. One reading is simply not enough.
As adults, many of us have a book (or books) that we've re-read not once but countless times ... and I suspect you can learn quite a lot about a person by finding out what it is. Working in the fantasy field, it's assumed that I'm a re-reader of The Lord of the Rings, but I hereby confess that I've read Professor Tolkien's great epic exactly twice: first in my teens and again in my twenties when I was commissioned to write about it. The book I've re-read so often that I've long lost count is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice -- which I didn't even particularly like on my first encounter as a sophmore in high school, but which has dazzled me with its clarity, depth, and wicked humor in every reading since. Re-reading the book in my 20s (thank you, Ellen Kushner!) was the key that unlocked its treasures.
So let us praise the distinctive pleasures of re-reading: that particular shiver of anticipation as you sink into a beloved, familiar text; the surprise and wonder when a book that had told one tale now turns and tells another; the thrill when a book long closed reveals a new door with which to enter. In our tech-obsessed, speed-obsessed, throw-away culture let us be truly subversive and praise instead the virtues of a long, slow relationship with a printed book unfolding over many years, a relationship that includes its weight in our hands and its dusty presence on our shelves. In an age that prizes novelty, irony, and youth, let us praise familiarity, passion, and knowledge accrued through the passage of time. As we age, as we change, as our lives change around us, we bring different versions of ourselves to each encounter with our most cherished texts. Some books grow better, others wither and fade away, but they never stay static.
"No reader can fail to agree that the number of books she needs to read far exceeds her capacities," writes Patricia Meyer Spacks, "but when the passion for rereading kicks in, the faint guilt that therefore attends the indulgence only serves to intensify its sweetness.”
Do you feel guilty for re-reading? I never have -- just frustrated that this one short life is not nearly long enough for all the books that I want to read and re-read. Revisiting books over years, over decades, is a multi-layered experience that first-time reading can never match -- though it has, of course, pleasures of its own. Re-reading is a different art than reading, but not a lesser one.
So today, let us praise re-reading, since reading itself has less need of champions; let us praise old books that are dog-eared, creased, cracked, and marked by years of handling. New books are fine but give me old ones too: underlined, coffee-stained, hiding pressed flowers and old letters faded into illegibility, and containing the ghosts of the woman I was and the woman I will be, the next time I read them.
Let us praise re-reading, which only gets richer and deeper with age. Take heart, young readers. The best is still to come.
In addition to the books mentioned above, I recommend Lisa Levy's essay, "The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading"; Anne Fadiman's charming anthology, Rereadings: 17 Writers Revisit the Books They Love; and Francis Spufford's memoir of a reading life, The Child That Books Built.