At a dinner party last week, a family friend said she was getting rid of an old bookcase. ‘And I’m just getting rid of the books too; after all, I’ve already read them.’ When I had recovered from spitting out my wine, I admitted that I have seventeen bookcases in my house (which is perhaps half the size of hers), full of books I have mostly read.
‘But why do you keep them?’ she asked.
‘I just – have to.’
There are two kinds of people: re-readers and non-re-readers. I became a re-reader out of necessity: as a child the local library couldn’t keep up with me, and besides, re-reading was fun. Reading a new book is like going to a party with strangers – it might be wonderful; you might meet exciting new friends; but it might equally be a disaster as you turn the pages sadly, finding nothing to tempt you and wishing you had stayed at home. Re-reading is like curling up by the fire for a gossip with old friends.
I have certain books which I reread every few years. I don’t know when the need will descend or what will spark it off. Sometimes a new book by a favourite author will inspire me with the desire to catch up on her backlist. Sometimes real life will throw something at me that can only be dealt with with the help of fictional old retainers – Antonia Forest’s Marlows got me through being laid up after an accident ten years ago; the months surrounding my father’s death were partly assuaged by daily escapes to the Chalet School.
But you know what happens! But there are so many new books! non-re-readers proclaim.
Yes, I know. I read lots of new books too. Maybe a hundred a year. And have a ‘to-read’ pile in double figures piling up in one of the seventeen bookcases.
But last week, I don’t know why, possibly because things weren’t going well in my WIP, I found that the only thing I wanted out of the thousands of possibilities in my bookshelves, was the Gemma series by Noel Streatfeild. Nothing else would do. Not her best books, and certainly not a model of good editing (Christmas happens twice in Gemma And Sisters within a couple of months.) I know every line of every gorgeous Betty Maxie illustration; I know not only what event is coming next but often every syllable of dialogue, but it doesn’t matter. I enjoyed every word. Again.
Lazy? Maybe. But sometimes you just want what you want. One day in 2012 I was walking down the Cromwell Road in London when I thought, This is where the Fossils live. And suddenly I needed to read Ballet Shoes. That moment. (Or at least when I got on the tube.) Because I had my kindle with me, I was able to gratify that. Maybe such instant gratification isn’t good for the character, and I probably stopped reading some worthy tome in order to wonder (again) which of the Fossils I would rather be (Pauline, though I know I’m meant to want to be Petrova); but I didn’t care. I was enjoying Ballet Shoes too much.
Of course it’s comfort reading, and thank God for it. Christmas is coming, and I expect Santa will bring some new books. Possible new friends. But it’s OK if he doesn’t, because I’m going to be curled up by the fire with the Cazalets (again).