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With so many fantabulous books waiting to be read, it’s hard to justify rereading anything. However, we also read differently and look for different things in our reading at various points in our life, and consequently, some books are worth revisiting. Then there are those books that really are like old friends: good stories well told, the lines from which still run over in our heads years after we’ve read them. They are books that, though familiar, continue to enchant. And these, I think, are occasionally worth the sacrifice of a new book.
Below are my top ten books for rereading. Many of them are classics, because—shock—most classics are just that for a reason. But there’s a few contemporary ones and some childhood faves in there too.
This is book has ALL THE THINGS. No, really. Young, naive girl meets mysterious, handsome older man who marries her and whisks her back to his (haunted) mansion where the creepy housekeeper is still obsessed with the guy’s dead first wife. But no one else wants to talk about her. At all. Because maybe the first wife and her death weren’t what they seemed. Cue ominous foreshadowing! Cue suspense! Sound like Jane Eyre fan fic? Yes, it is, but SO MUCH MORE! By the end of Rebecca you’ll be having nightmares about flowers. That’s how powerful this book is. You’ll also be pondering deep questions about female identity (we’re talking an epic face-off between the feminine extremes of ‘the angel in the house’ and ‘madwoman in the attic’ archetypes. Literary awesome ensues), and most likely be madly in love with Maxim de Winter, regardless of your sexual orientation and the fact that, like Rochester, he’s a bit of a d-bag. Also, there’s a cute dog. Argument made.
Think about the craziest thing you and your friends did at uni. Did it involve pagan rituals (drug-fuelled orgies) in the woods, incest and the murder of one of your friends? No. Basically, The Secret History shits all over whatever wacky stunts you pulled in your student days. The return of the repressed features strongly, and the world inhabited by narrator Richard Papen and his friends is a very different place to that inhabited by their fellow students at Hampden College. But, unlike the corny teen thriller I’ve made it sound like here, The Secret History also has class. And layers. Like Rebecca, it’s a thrilling page-turner. But it’s also pretentious as hell, referencing everything (literally everything) from Plato to Bret Easton Ellis, and the better read you are, the more levels you unlock. Hint: start with ancient Greek philosophy and T S Eliot.
I wrote a substantial chunk of my PhD thesis on The Secret History. I love it like I love my unborn children. I spent more time at uni with Richard, Bunny, Francis, Charles, Camilla and Henry than my real uni friends. (I wish that were hyperbole. It’s not.) The Secret History has a way of drawing you into a world that is ugly and terrifying but also incredibly beautiful, in the true sense of the word. And once in that world, you don’t want to leave. I met a girl recently who’s read The Secret History many times but always stops twenty pages before the end so that the story is never finished. THAT’S HOW GOOD IT IS.
As a self-confessed anglophile and a born-Catholic-turned-athiest, Brideshead Revisited was always destined for my favourites list. Also, the miniseries stars a young Jeremy Irons. So there’s that. Captain Charles Ryder is stationed with his troops at Brideshead during World War Two and reminisces about visiting the country estate as a guest of the family’s youngest son during his Oxford days, and the less romantic years that followed. It’s a beautiful, melancholy story of repressed desire, Catholic guilt and the decline of the British gentry following World War One.
No one writes criminals like Highsmith, and Tom Ripley is her masterpiece. A working class con man with a taste for the finer things in life, he travels to Europe to bring home Dickie Greenleaf, the son of a wealthy American businessman. But once in Europe, he becomes enamoured of Dicky’s extravagant lifestyle. Moreover, he believes he can live Dicky’s life better than Dicky himself. And so he takes it. But Dicky’s girlfriend becomes suspicious, and so begins a thrilling game of cat and mouse.
I love a good Highsmith. You’re always guaranteed cocktails and a body count. Her novels also make for excellent travel reading, or for when you feel like travelling but can’t afford it. She writes with clean, evocative prose that both comforts and unsettles. It’s much speculated that she herself was a psychopath (not that she killed people, but that she lacked empathy). It makes for truly wicked reading.
All of John Green’s books are a-freaking-mazing. You should—must—read all of them. But Looking for Alaska was my first and remains my favourite. I also wrote about this one in my PhD thesis. Kind of like The Secret History, it’s about an unhappy boy, Pudge, who starts over at a new school where he becomes part of a quirky-awesome group of friends headed up by the ever-enigmatic Alaska Young. On the surface everything is finally awesome for Pudge and his new friends. Life is sneaky cigarettes, strawberry wine and pranks. But underneath all that, things aren’t okay. And because things aren’t okay, because Pudge and his friends would rather focus on the fun stuff than the real stuff, something awful happens.
Both funny and heartbreaking, Looking for Alaska asks what it means to know someone completely and what it takes to forgive. It’s about being stuck in the labyrinth and still believing in the Great Perhaps.
It’s been a while since I reread Looking for Alaska in full, but I often go back to the final three pages, in the same way I sometimes rewatch the final six minutes of Six Feet Under, because catharsis. Also because it’s a hell of an ending and contains secret of the universe.
Basically, if I have kids, when they go through the hell that is adolescence and they don’t want my help because I’m both an adult and their mother, I’m going to give them this book and back away slowly.
This is the book I read and reread as a child on nights when I’d convinced myself that Count Dracula was hiding in the bush outside my window, the Phantom of the Opera was under my bed and the only things stopping them from kidnapping me were a) keeping the light on (for Dracula) and b) my giant toy clown Timmy (for the Phantom). I was a disturbed child. Anyway, on those nights it was only by reading Roald Dahl’s autobipgraphy of childhood that I could finally sleep. Like his fiction, Boy is full of wonderfully squeamish tales: hiding a rat in one of the lolly jars of Mrs Pratchett’s sweet shop (‘The Great Mouse Plot of 1923’), having his nose sewn back on after a car accident, watching a fellow pupil have a boil lanced. But what I loved most were his stories of boarding school: tuck boxes and rugby matches, ‘fags’ and deeply evil teachers. Unlike so many other school stories I read at the time, Dahl’s account is funny, but bittersweet and not in the least romantic. He writes about having to warm up toilet seats for older boys, getting the cane and his terrible homesickness.
It’s been a good fifteen years or more since I last read it, but so many of the stories have stayed with me, more so even than Matilda, The BFG and The Witches. If you’ve got little ones with a wicked sense of humour, this is one of the best books you could give them.
I’m generalising, but in my experience people can be divided into two groups: those who have read Lolita and loved it and those who haven’t read it and think that there must be something seriously wrong with those who have. Admittedly, it’s a hard sell. The narrator is a murderer and a pedophile who drags his step-daughter from motel to motel across America.
That said, it’s the most beautiful, playful book I’ve ever read. The narrator, Humbert Humbert, is an enchanter, as is Nabokov. His use of language, the rhythm of his prose—it’s beyond incredible. While I’ve never felt that Humbert is justified in his crimes, I want to hear his story again, and again, and again. When someone asks that well worn question: what is capital-L Literature? The best answer I can give is to put Lolita in their hands and let them discover it for themselves.
I stumbled on T. S. Eliot’s work by accident. I’d had the misfortune of seeing Cats and soon after, bored in English, I was flipping through our poetry anthology when I found a poem that was oddly similar to the song ‘Memory’ only infinitely better. It was Eliot’s ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, and is, in fact, what ‘Memory’ is based on. Cats is a (God awful) musical adaptation of Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I quickly forgot about the musical and focused on finding more Eliot.
The man is a genius and it will take me the rest of my life and then some to fully appreciate his work, but even at sixteen I found something melancholy and hopeless in his poems that struck a chord. Twelve years later my favourites are still ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, ‘Portrait of a Lady’ and ‘Preludes’. They are full of hesitation, regret, things left unsaid and resignation to unwanted lives. But in their hopelessness, they inspire hope. They are beautiful. I have no idea if Eliot meant it or not, but to me they say: here is the life you can—will—lead if you do nothing and say nothing and don’t risk something better. ‘Prufrock’ in particular is the poem I revisit when I’m in the pit and I feel like everything I write is crap and what the hell am I doing with my life anyway? The poem is about a guy who dithers over whether or not to declare his feelings for the woman he loves. In my worst moments of self doubt, when I’m in tears with nothing but shitty drafts and unpaid bills and feel I’ve made a terrible mistake, it reminds me that it might be worse—I might have been afraid to try.
Confession: I’ve never actually read Little Women. My parents gave it to me as an audio book soon after I started school and I listened to it again and again and again. Being a bit of a tomboy and a bookworm, I idolised Jo March.
Even at such a young age, I found Little Women very empowering. Each of the four girls has their own gifts and talents, which they are encouraged to develop and pursue. They also possess very different world views and are incredibly independent.
It is also one of the first books I encountered (along with Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians, which I read at the same time) that deals with death, specifically the death of a child. It taught me that death is something inevitable, and that even ‘good’ characters (and people) die.
Again, The Secret Garden was part of my audio book collection until my grandma gave me a copy of the book for my seventh or eighth birthday. I love gardening and I love orphan stories. Whether I love The Secret Garden because of this, or whether The Secret Garden gave me this love I’m not sure.
I loved spoilt, stubborn Mary and her discovery of the garden. I loved the sad story behind the garden and how the children grow with the plants they tend. It’s the first book I read with a ‘haunted’ house, secret places, hidden things and in which nature played such a pivotal and symbolic role. I’m convinced it is my memories of this book that in part informed my love of Jane Eyre and Rebecca and will inform much of the fiction I hope to write.