Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Rediscovering The Classics

Recently, I've mostly been reading new books - every now and then, I go a bit mad, and beg, steal or borrow whatever new reads I can get my hands on. I'm easily bored and distracted, you see, and there's usually nothing quite like a new book to anchor your attention. The most recent burst of newreaditis has been quite lengthy; it's encompassed locations as wide-ranging as Ancient Greece in Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, and the Old West with The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. I've visited modern New York with Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok, walked across England in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and struggled across Nazi Europe in Random Acts Of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann. I've ridden through deserts with assassins and hidden in toilets with illegal workers; I've travelled with Austrian Jews, hiked with elderly gents and sailed with legendary warriors, and I've had a rip-roaring time of it. But, like all long journeys, I began to feel something like homesickness; I began, in literary terms, to yearn for my own bed, a proper cup of tea, and my mum's cooking.

I've discussed this subject before, in an previous entry titled The Lost Art of Re-Reading A Book, although then I focussed more on the literary benefits; you learn more about characters, you can discover new aspects of the plot, you can find new perspectives from which to view events. However, I was being a bit cold about it, if I'm honest, and at the time I hadn't actually re-read anything in flippin' ages even then. But, after my literary Odyssey, I chose for my Ithaca of a homecoming the sublime To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. It's one of my absolute favourite books of all time, for so many reasons, and I even wrote my recent review before I had actually finished reading the book for the umpteenth time - I just love it so much, and know it so well, I simply couldn't wait for it to end before I started writing. Once I was finished, however, I felt like I wanted more; the comfort I got from it was sustaining, but not quite enough.

So I have embarked on a journey of rediscovery, and you know what? I'm enjoying it as much as I enjoyed my little visits to new worlds, if not more so. There's something incredibly comforting about reconnecting with a beloved story, and if the books are like home, then the characters are like family; they make you laugh, some of them make you cry, others are so annoying they make you grind your teeth, and others still are your secret favourites; the ones you're always happiest to see, even if you'd never admit it. Streets in the towns of these books feel as familiar as your own hometown, and best of all, it never changes. When you come back home after a protracted absence, something has always changed; a new building has gone up, an old one has been torn down, a new shop has opened, a friend has moved away - but in books, everything and everyone is right where you left them, and that's a comforting stability that you rarely get now.

New books are always fantastic to read; you never know quite what you're going to get with them, and each new book you pick up, you could well be a discovering a new favourite. I love that feeling of opening a book for the first time, reading the first line and feeling my heart beat that little bit faster as I absorb the words; there's sometimes a flurry of anticipation and excitement that THIS is going to be one of those life-changing books, the ones that stay with you forever. However, there's something equally exciting about reaching for one with slightly browned pages, creases in the spine, curling corners. Arguably, the anticipation is greater, because you know what's coming. With an old favourite, you have bits to look forward to, bits to dread, bits that make you laugh before you even get to it. One that is always guaranteed to make me laugh is Spike Milligan's war memoirs, particularly Rommel? Gunner Who? There's an excellent bit in there in which Spike recalls an exchange between two fellow soliders:

'Our cook, Gunner May, a dapper lad with curly black hair and Ronald Colman moustace was doling out Porridge. He spoke with a very posh voice and Porridge.
"Where'd you get that accent Ronnie?" asked Gunner Devine.
"Eton old sausage."
"Well I'd stop eatin' old sausages," says Devine. With the flick of a wrist, May sends a spoonful of Porridge into Devine's eye.'

As far as humour goes, it's not big, it's not clever, it's probably not even that funny to those of you with more refined tastes than mine - but the first time I read it, I laughed so hard I had tears streaming down my face. Now, having read this exchange probably about fifty times, I still laugh so hard I cry - except the chuckles start about two pages earlier, when I realise what's coming, and if anything, it's this anticipation that makes the exchange all the funnier. It never gets old, and even better, because I'm laughing before I get there, the hilarity, for me, is prolonged. I love reading something for the first time, but the emotion of an exchange, or the wittiness (or not, in the example above) can only be heightened and improved by a re-read.

I was planning to get stuck into a list of Top 100 Books to read, in an effort to make myself more worthy of writing a blog about books. However, it appears that I've now got myself stuck in a bit of a nostalgia rut; you see, now I've started, I can't seem to stop. I've just finished High Fidelity by Nick Hornby for what seems like the bazillionth time - review to come at some point - and I'm currently a few chapters in to Company Of Liars by Karen Maitland, which is possibly the only horror book I've ever enjoyed. I thought I could stop there, but I've just had to add Rommel? Gunner Who? to the list, and whilst I'm thinking of slighty ridiculous non-fiction, I may as well throw McCarthy's Bar by Pete McCarthy in there as well. I thought I'd had enough of reading the same books, that I'd got bored, and that it was time to discover some new favourites; however, it  seems to be that - much like in real life - in the literary world, there's no place like home.

Dammit. Need to re-read The Wizard Of Oz by Frank Baum now.

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