Tuesday 23 May 2017

Going back to the books I loved so well. . .

Are you a reader or a rereader? Given that I review books for a living, I don't get much chance to revisit books that meant a lot to me when I first read them and thus to discover if my appreciation of them has increased or waned with the passing of time.

I'm not really complaining because amid all the dross that inevitably comes a reviewer's way there's always that thrill of reading something exceptional -- in the last 12 months alone, I've been richly rewarded by books as various as Joan Bakewell's How to Live, Nigel Hamilton's American Caesars, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, Neil Jordan's Mistaken and William Ryan's The Holy Thief.

But I'd love to have time to return to those books that made such an impression on me in my teenage years, though my enthusiasm would undoubtedly be shadowed by apprehension. What would I now make of Evelyn Waugh's bright young things? Or Graham Greene's anguished souls? And, as I suspect, would I find Virginia Woolf a hard slog and Aldous Huxley simply unreadable?

That, of course, is the danger in rereading, not just in revealing how some books can become hopelessly dated but in showing how much you have changed, too -- more impatient, less indulgent.

"You can't repeat the past," as Nick Carraway told Jay Gatsby, but then The Great Gatsby (Scott Fitzgerald pictured) is a book that I do regularly revisit and that seems just as much a marvel now as when I first fell under its spell. And the same goes for Jane Austen's Persuasion, Turgenev's Home of the Gentry, Joyce's Dubliners, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and some other classics to which I regularly return.

So what books today will stand that test of time? A generation from now, will Cormac McCarthy, Don de Lillo, Alison Lurie, Ian McEwan, John Banville, Colm Tóibín and Emma Donoghue be fondly taken down from the shelves by readers who were first thrilled by them 30 years earlier? Or will we be reading at all?

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