Friday, 12 May 2017

Haven’t I read this one before…? by Ruth Hatfield

As the only writerly thing I’ve done this month is record an interview for the fantastic Listening Books (do check them out), I’ll have to relapse in this blog to my favourite subject: reading.

More specifically, Books I Have Loved and Re-Read 9,000 times…

What is it that makes it such a joy to read a favourite book over and over again? I’ve got the sort of temperament that gets frustrated by going over something I already know, when there’s always something new to see or do. But re-reading is something I absolutely love. This week I’ve picked up M.M. Kaye’s Shadow of the Moon for what must be at least the twentieth time, and I can’t put it down. Why?

For anyone who doesn’t know the book, it’s a pretty conventionally structured ‘historical romance’ set at the time of the Indian Mutiny. Things in its favour: to me, the prose is stunning, though some people might find it a big long-winded in comparison to modern books. It’s a big book, so there are always a few new details to notice. There’s plenty of scheming and intrigue, besides the romance, and plenty of different points of view put forward by an author who was very familiar with the cultures she was writing about. It’s a fun, exciting book.


 But… twenty times? That’s pretty excessive, even for my reading habits. I think the desire to re-read goes further than just having found a good book and wanting to experience again the initial thrill of discovering it. There’s an obvious point that re-reading is in some ways more comforting and less challenging than reading a new book – you know what you’re going to get, after all. Kids want the same stories again and again, and that’s possibly partly the reason. But each time I read Room on the Broom to my daughter, she still manages to notice new things in the pictures. It’s clearly in some ways the same and in some ways different every time.

Maybe it’s because the stories we love become more ‘ours’ every time we read them. Perhaps the ones we fixate on are the ones we wish we’d written, that feel so close to us we think they could almost have come out of ourselves (not necessarily that we’d have had the skill to write them, just that they’re close to our inner creative selves).

Also, some of the precious pony books I had as a child have fallen apart, so many times were they read – I think that was as a result of a strong desire to be inside the words, to know them so intimately that I could imagine myself actually stepping into those worlds, one day in the future, and journeying through their places, befriending their characters, riding their horses…

It’s a tendency I haven’t lost as an adult, although the desires are different. Sometimes I want, desperately, to understand the real world better – I look to books such as The Grapes of Wrath to explain how straitened people can get, and how cruel people can intentionally be, and no matter how many times I tear apart its pages, I can’t get to the logic of it all. Sometimes it’s just fantasy – Jilly Cooper, Mary Stewart, Dick Francis – they all illuminate specific worlds I crave to wander through.

I don’t know quite what I get from M.M. Kaye, apart, perhaps, from her sharp-eyed descriptions of the different views of British people about the occupation of India, but maybe that’s enough – the attitudes of oppressors towards those they oppress and vice versa is a subject large enough to never become tedious, and the question of why it happens can never fully be answered. And each time I read the same views, I see them differently according to what’s going on around me at that moment.

I guess I haven’t got any particularly definite conclusions about exactly why I’m galloping through 600 pages of tiny typescript I already know well, when time is so precious. But perhaps that does lead me to another answer – on a horse, the best gallops are often those on paths where you both already know the length and the terrain. You know there aren’t rabbit holes to watch out for, or gates to stumble over, and you know how long you’ve got to enjoy the speed, so you can just concentrate on what it actually feels like to be in the moment, galloping on a willing horse, with the wind in your face and the drumming of hoofbeats below.


Sheena Wilkinson said...

Oh, I love this post! I am SUCH a re-reader, and really identify with this. Some books are just like old friends and we have to check in with them once in a while. Even though we know what they will tell us. Some books and characters just become part of who we are.

Ruth Hatfield said...

They really do become part of who we are! (Which I sort of worry about with Jilly Cooper... but hey, she's got a sense of humour...)