Strange readers, we begin again

Michelle RichmondWe all have those books that we read over and over again, books that call to us repeatedly over the years. And despite the fact that we think we know the story backwards and front, we crack the spine once more, because we know that we’ll find something familiar inside, and something beautiful, but we also know that each reading renders something new.

For me, the two books at the top of my read-again-and-again list are Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and Lars Gustafsson’s The Death of a Beekeeper. I read The Moviegoer whenever I’m traveling south (I’m an Alabama girl by birth and upbringing), which is rarer and rarer these days. As for The Death of a Beekeeper, I find myself diving in every couple of years, usually when I’m winding down from the writing of a novel or gearing up to write a new one.

The physical and mental impact of pain, the intricate workings of beehives, the frozen landscape of North Vastmanland, are all detailed lovingly. So too are the mysterious ways of a fictional galaxy called Aldebaran—a galaxy which our narrator constructs for the amusement of two local schoolboys who come to visit him at his cabin.

Gustafsson’s protagonist, Lars Westin, is a retired village schoolteacher in Sweden. By the time this narrative comes into our hands, Westin is already dead. What survives are Westin’s notebooks, through which we view, with exquisite clarity, the final months of his life. The Yellow Notebook is concerned with beekeeping and household expenses; the Damaged Notebook is made up of telephone numbers and notes about the progression of Westin’s cancer; the Blue Notebook contains “newspaper clippings, excerpts from Westin’s readings, and his own stories.”

It is in the Blue Notebook that we find Westin’s intergalactic narrative. As his own life comes to an end, he builds a fantastical world that will live on beyond him. With a little faith in those two precocious schoolboys, one can imagine that Aldebaran will live on beyond the notebooks as well.

This is a book of found texts–not one but several–and each of the notebooks on its own might offer up enough material for a novel. Yet, here they all reside together, in a space of little more than a hundred pages. The Death of a Beekeeper was part of the inspiration for my new novel, No One You Know, which encompasses two found texts: a blue plaid notebook containing the mathematical ramblings of the narrator’s dead sister, and a true crime novel entitled Murder by the Bay, written by the narrator’s old professor and friend about her sister’s death.

“Kind readers,” Gustaffson begins. “Strange readers. We begin again.” And so I, strange reader that I am, begin…again and again and again. Each time, I come away feeling that I have discovered something wonderful.

If you’re in San Francisco, please join me tonight at the Booksmith on Haigh Street at 7:30 p.m. for a glass of wine and a chat about No One You Know. Or join me anytime in Redroom.

Comments

  1. says

    I haven’t read either of your choices but they sound amazing. The books I’ve re-read the most would be Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, most of Jack Vance, but especially Lyonesse, and Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. A lot of people I know never re-read but for me it is important. It’s strange how you notice new and different things and how episodes you thought were long seem suddenly short and vice-versa.

  2. Timblynod says

    Will–

    Earthsea and Lyonesse are also cherished rereads for me, too. In the last year I’ve begun to devour Le Guin’s short fiction. One in particular, “The Barrow,” is still resounding in my mind. It was one of those rare Ecstatic Days. Currently rereading ‘City of Saints…’ and remember so fondly the day at the bookstore when I pulled down a curiously-titled book off the shelf for further inspection. That was another Ecstatic Day.

  3. says

    Thanks to both Will and Vance for your comments. How interesting that both of you have Le Guin on your reread list!

    Ditto what you say, Will, about the expansion and compression of scenes and time in the reread…how things leap to the forefront with each new reading, and other things recede, and you come upon lines that you can’t believe you haven’t committed to memory, and then other lines that you have committed to memory turn out to be quite different from the way you remembered them!

    Tymblynod…to remember a specific day when you picked a book off a shelf! All this harkens back to that conversation we were having in the comments yesterday about memory.

    There aren’t many books I specifically remember picking up on a certain day. I do remember some ten year ago arriving in Hong Kong after two months in Beijing, and it was an Ecstatic Day indeed when I spotted a tiny English language bookshop near a ferry terminal. Everything was expensive, and I only had enough cash to buy one book, and I was headed back to the mainland soon, so I bought the thickest one I could find…Underworld.

  4. says

    Hmm, oddly enough A Wizard of Earthsea is also a book I seem to re-read every few years and there isn’t much fantasy I’d say that about. I wonder what makes it so compelling?

  5. says

    I first read Earthsea first when I was very young – 11 or 12 – so it was maybe the first ‘serious’ book I’d read and it told me a lot about how people relate to one another, the changes they go through as life moves on – Serret and Vetch for example – and also how you are alone through life, despite friends and attachments and that you have to face the world that you make. Alongside that is the incredible beauty and accuracy the book captures in terms of landscape. Le Guin conveys grey seas and skies, rocks and cliffs better than anyone else I’ve read. In cinema Tarkovsky achieved similar effects, as though you are seeing through to something absolutely real and maybe that is the best thing you can achieve in art.

  6. Juha says

    The Earthsea cycle are also among the books I most frequently revisit. I’ve often wondered whether part of it is nostalgia–I first read them around age 10 and a couple of times again in my teens–and I think that they played a part in the development of my values. On the other hand, having reread them again in my mid-twenties, I’m still amazed by how LeGuin manages to convey such engrossing characters and places with what seems to be such a magnificent elegance and economy of style. Other books I read as a kid haven’t weathered nearly as well.

    Another series that I’ve found myself revisiting is the comic The Maxx by Sam Keith. Even though originally I only read the odd issue here and there, the comic stuck in my head. I’ve since bought the collected version and read through it a couple of times. Great stuff.

  7. says

    Beautiful post. I didn´t know Gustafsson’s work – mea culpa.

    As for revisiting books, this is a habit I only acquired recently (maybe because of that feeling impending of impending doom which strikes us when we get 40 – careful, Jeff!!). I´ve been reading again Brazilian classics, as Guimarães Rosa´s Grande Sertão: Veredas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is the English title, though it doesn´t carry out anything of the beauty and strangeness of the original).

    As for SF, a book I´ve been reading again and again for a while is Neuromancer. The short stories of Donald Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon have just entered in my rereading list (I just read again the proto-steampunk “Under The Rose”, which is in the collection “Slow Learner”).

  8. says

    Thanks to all of you for sharing your reread lists. Fabio’s post reminded me that short stories are particularly ripe for the return visit. There are a number of short stories that I reread because I discuss them with my grad students, but I think I’d probably dip back into them now and again even if I hadn’t assigned them for class–one of these is John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. Black Tickets, by Jayne Anne Phillips, calls to me every few years. Like Fabio, I find that the stories of Donald Barthelme really lend themselves to multiple readings over time.

    As for novels and novellas, I find much of Paul Auster’s work highly re-readable.

    Thanks to John, Will, and Juha for your conversation on Earthsea: I will definitely be adding this to my list of (dare I say it?) first-time reads.

  9. says

    I find myself drawn again and again to Vonnegut, no matter what novel it is. As well as Eric McCormack’s The Mysterium, and Jim Dodge’s Stone Junction.

  10. says

    Michelle, good to know you´re also a fan of Barthelme´s short stories. I just forgot to add I also love to reread Conrad and London. At least once a year I must read London´s To Build a Fire (which I used as inspiration to write a recently published story, O Grande Concerto (unfortunately only available in Portuguese for the time being, I´m sorry), and Conrad´s The Duel (I also make a point to see once or twice a year the excellent Ridley Scott adaptation with Harvey Keitel).

  11. says

    Yes, good post – thanks Michelle! The reverie I’ve been in reading the responses has been a real treat. My own re-reads are a bit different, and I’ve even received a certain amount of harassment from other readers when I mention them. I admit I’m a shallow reader. My most-read book is probably Delany’s Dhalgren. 20 years ago I finally bought the Gregg library edition, just so I had a copy that wouldn’t wear out! It’s held up well. Beyond that I’d say the mostly unknown book by Donald Kingsbury, Courtship Rite, is one of my all-time favorites and one I read every two or three years. It’s aged well. Another, one that hasn’t aged so well is C. J. Cherryh’s The Faded Sun trilogy. Last time I read it I had a growing sense that it’s formed of rather stiff clay in broad strokes. Yet it had a lot to do with determining how I wish to conduct my own life. And Earthsea … Wow. Thanks for the reminder, that is going to be one of the best things I’ll read this year. I don’t think my wife has ever read it, either. What a treat! Thanks to all for a fantastic voyage.

  12. says

    Dave, ah yes…that’s another thing to address…those books that mean so much to us when we’re younger but don’t age so well!

    Again with Earthsea. Now that just about everyone on this comment chain has listed it, I must go out and get it immediately!

    Corey, you mention Vonnegut, which brings to mind another author of his ilk, John Fante, whose short stories I reread every now and again when I’m looking for something fun and somewhat zany, but dark, and at heart very melancholy.

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