John Ostrander: Old Friends
There are so many books yet to read – classics, mysteries, SF, fantasy, history, biography, comics and so on. All unread, so many of them of such high quality and I really want to read them. There are, however, only so many hours to the day and so many things that need doing in those hours, including writing this column.
Yet I often find myself returning to books that I’ve read before. For several years, right around Memorial Day, we’d go to a mass out by where my father was buried and that would be a key for me to start re-reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There was the return to Middle-Earth and all the locations, all the characters – good and bad – that inhabited it. I’ve often returned as well to A. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and Victorian/Edwardian England.
I watch a lot of movies over and over again, but I think books are different. There’s a greater investiture of time in re-reading a book, usually, and it demands a greater investiture of me. Don’t get me wrong; I love movies but it is a more passive activity. You have to use your imagination more with reading; you have to be actively engaged. You’re translating two-dimensional words on a page (or screen these days) into images in your mind, into a sensory experience. You control the pace of the storytelling to a degree; you read fast or you linger. You go back or maybe skip forward, sometimes to the end if you’re cheating and want to know that first. They’re very different experiences.
When I read something for a second time, it’s a different experience than the first. The first time, I want the story. I want to know What Happens Next, how is it all going to turn out. It’s fresh, it’s new, and (if the story is good) exciting.
On subsequent reads, unless I’ve forgotten the plot (which happens more and more as I grow older), I know all of that. I may discover a bit I had not gotten before or the story yields a new pleasure that I had missed in my rush to find out What Happens Next.
So why keep going back when I can keep reading something new, get that first time feeling over and over again? I think its because the story stays with me and it was well told. I’ve never gone back and read a book I disliked or even one to which I was simply indifferent. I had to love that story. I go back, not expecting the same pleasure I had the first time, but simply because it’s a friend. I had a good experience with that friend and I enjoy being in its company. For me, the fact that it’s a repeated pleasure simply deepens that pleasure for me.
I try to balance out the two; reading something new along with reading something familiar. It keeps me sane – or what passes for sane these days. I think I’ll go find an old friend this summer and renew my acquaintanceship. It’s a good time to do it.
On a different note: since this is Memorial Day Weekend, we should remember the reason why the holiday exists. It’s not simply the start of summer, it’s about remembering those who served their country, especially those who died. Our respect and our thanks.
And if you’re traveling, safe journey.
MONDAY MORNING: Mindy Newell
TUESDAY MORNING: Emily S. Whitten