Books worth reading once should be returned to

The Argument

May 09, 1999|By Elizabeth Teachout | Elizabeth Teachout,Special to the Sun

Picture this: You drop by for a cup of coffee, pick up the book I've left on the coffee table and exclaim, "Haven't you read this before?" If you are near and dear to me, you may add, "At least a dozen times!"

I, in turn, will glare at you before responding, "Your point being?"

If you're my husband and you slip in some sly remark about my reading list of a dozen books, preferably bad, I will simply pretend not to have heard you. (You won't be surprised.)

My position on the matter is simple: If a book is worth reading, it's worth reading again and again -- even if that means buying another copy after the original meets an untimely demise in the bathtub.

I spent years blissfully unaware that mine was not the only possible viewpoint. Enlightenment came in the form of an old friend whose unfathomable response to a book recommendation of mine was, "Oh, but I read that years ago." A quick poll of my friends revealed pretty much equal numbers of single and multiple readers. (And one from the first category added the unsolicited opinion that she thinks that what I do should be considered skimming and not reading. She also suggested that I write this piece to half length but print it out twice if I think reading things again is so nifty.)

I've listened to the main defense of the other side -- so many books, so little time -- and I can't deny it. There are hundreds of potentially cherished books that I will never read because "The Bonfire of the Vanities" has beckoned yet again. And any aspirations I once had to being well read were down the drain when I discovered Armisted Maupin's "Tales of the City."

All the same, to turn away my old favorites is out of the question. It would be like listening to the new Lauryn Hill CD. Once. Or eating the perfect gnocchi con gorgonzola in your neighborhood Italian joint. Once.

A case could be made for chalking up this urge for comfort reading to simple immaturity, I suppose. After all, kids are pretty universal in wanting to hear (and eventually read) the same story over and over. So even though my dad likes to remind me that I was stuck in an endless loop of reading "Johnny Tremain" during the early 1970s, I feel certain I was not alone.

A surprising number of childhood favorites are still on my shelves where they are both read regularly and loaned out. A policy wonk recently e-mailed me that he was thrilled with the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books I'd urged on him. And I have been known to deliver a pithy remark at a cocktail party before realizing it was straight out of "Harriet the Spy." Even my husband (who steered away from children's books as a child, spending his time reading Henry James, to hear him tell it) has occasionally been found curled up with a Laura Ingalls Wilder or "Charlotte's Web."

Even my girlfriends with literary pretensions will admit to having read "Peyton Place" or "Valley of the Dolls" time after time during puberty. My particular favorite was "Scruples," Judith Krantz's classic of the Cinderella-gets-laid genre and I can almost rationalize the hours spent reading it as having served me well as that familiarity now allows me to wade through it in my endless quest to learn Italian as "Scrupoli." But although the hormones settled down and eventually form became more important than content, my obsessive reading patterns were set.

The books that form most of my reading life have little in common except that they fill me with joy. Some of them work for me because they have an essential rightness about something important to me.

When Jane Hamilton writes about Iowa in "A Map of the World," it strikes a chord in my very Midwestern heart. I feel the same way about a handful a books about making music: Frank Conroy's "Body & Soul," Janice Weber's "The Secret Life of Eva Hathaway," Marge Piercy's "Summer People." And books about the lure of Italy keep me coming back to Frances Mayes' "Under the Tuscan Sun" and Maeve Binchy's "Evening Class." To read these books is to understand that I am not alone in the world.

Others I return to because I'm overwhelmed by the absolute beauty of their writing. I've been reading "Brideshead Revisited" regularly over the last 20 years because its language is as magnificent as any work I know. I am glad to live in a world where it exists. Similarly, Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" is a jewel -- when I drift into fantasy about doing the book tour for my first novel, hers is the book that I have written.

But the meat and potatoes of my literary diet (or perhaps I should say the Prozac, as these are the books that keep me functioning at a reasonable level of happiness) are the simple stories gracefully told by contemporary women novelists: Alison Lurie, Lisa Alther, Susan Isaacs, Rosamunde Pilcher.

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