Book returns

Rereading an old favorite at different stages in life is a chance to discover new things in the text and in ourselves

Story by Steve Almond Illustrations by Joey Guidone

Text Messages

Three writers, each a lover of language, explore expedient strategies for reading, the labyrinths of lexicography, and the subtle pleasures of rereading — and re-rereading — a favorite book.

Book smarts

If you want to get serious about reading, time is not your friend. Here are some suggestions for making each book count.

High definition

A longtime lexicographer reveals the rebarbative precision by which dictionaries are made and celebrates the unruly evolution of the English language.

Book returns

Rereading an old favorite at different stages in life is a chance to discover new things in the text and in ourselves.

I have a confession to make: I am an inveterate rereader. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice half a dozen times. The same can be said of Slaughterhouse-Five, The Catcher in the Rye, and the Lorrie Moore short story collection Birds of America. If I conducted a ruthless accounting of my reading habits, I would estimate that I spend half my time immersed in a book I already know.

This feels almost illicit. After all, I’m an author myself. I should be reading new work, all those worthy novels featured in the New York Times Book Review — many of them written by friends and colleagues. But a few months ago, I took a break from berating myself and decided, instead, to examine why I keep reading old favorites. I chose to focus on the book I’ve returned to more than any other: Stoner by John Williams. I own three copies of this quietly devastating novel, which I’ve stashed around my home, just to make sure it’s always close at hand.

What I came to realize, rather quickly, was that rereading represents two distinct pleasures. The first is the chance to retreat from the exhausting unknowns of my own life into an imaginary world that I already know by heart. When I read Stoner, I find myself transported from the chaos of my home outside Boston — with its many loud and cantankerous children — into the much quieter world of William Stoner, a dedicated scholar who spends most of his hours in his office, poring over medieval texts or student essays.

I know exactly what’s going to happen to Stoner: that he’s going to fall in love with a beautiful but damaged woman, that his marriage will implode, that he will be dragged into a bitter and senseless feud at work, that he will find refuge in his teaching, and that he will be rescued by a passionate love affair. I know his life is going to be a roller coaster. And I know the exact shape of that roller coaster, where every twist and turn is going to be, every high and low, every moment of joy and despair.

In a sense, when I read Stoner, I return to the same elemental state of being as my own five-year-old, who is thrilled to read the same storybook over and over, to savor the delicious dread and hope that come from knowing what happens next. The feeling is one of mastery. Our fairy tales may grow more complex and nuanced, but we never outgrow the thrill of them.

So there’s no question that I reread Stoner to indulge in a kind of private escapism. But when I thought more deeply about the experience of rereading the novel, what struck me was this: While the events of the book were predictable, my reaction to these events was not. Indeed, it’s fair to say that I’m reading a different novel each time.

When I discovered Stoner as a 28-year-old returning to graduate school to study writing, the novel was a parable about the redemptive power of literature. I identified with William Stoner because I, too, had discovered in books “the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words.” Like me, Stoner toiled to transmit his love of language to uninspired students. As an adjunct professor, I would return from a day of teaching three classes of freshman composition, at three universities, and reach for Stoner, simply to remind myself that I wasn’t the only pedagogue who felt inept and overmatched.

A few years later, my focus shifted again. I was, by then, embroiled in a number of bitter academic rows. And so Stoner became a book about conflict, and the struggle to defend ourselves without engineering, or escalating, feuds. During the early years of my marriage, I read Stoner to understand the ways in which marriage inevitably lays bare each partner, exposing the wounds of our past, in the struggle for trust and intimacy. As a new father, I focused on the wrenching account of Stoner as a parent, one who is loving and attentive, but ultimately negligent.

More recently, I’ve obsessed over the closing pages of the novel, which track William Stoner all the way through a terminal illness and to the moment of his dying. My attention has shifted in this bleak direction, no doubt, because I’ve spent the past five years coping with the death of my mother. Stoner, in other words, has become a kind of manual for living, one that has helped me understand the shifting course of my own life, even as it offers a fictional refuge from that life.

When I thought more deeply about the experience of rereading the novel, what struck me was this: While the events of the book were predictable, my reaction to these events was not.

I see the same pattern play out among the other readers in my family. The long and complex relationship my wife, Erin, has with Little Women began when she was 10 years old. It was the novel she read every year at Christmastime. As the only daughter growing up in a family dominated by aggressive male energy, she loved immersing herself in the world of the March family, with its many loyal sisters and its wise and loving mother. But reading the book today, what she finds most compelling are the subversive feminist aspects, like the way Jo March struggles to define herself as a working artist in a patriarchal society.

My older daughter, Josie, used to read the Harry Potter books because she wanted to believe in a world of magic and unseen possibility. She loved rooting for Harry Potter, because he was (like her) a kid with a strong moral core who sometimes felt out of place. She still enjoys that aspect of the series. But more recently, she has tuned in to the books as cautionary tales about the shifting loyalties, and roiling hormones, of adolescence.

Rereading novels differs from other forms of what I think of as nostalgia consumption. When I listen to “Stairway to Heaven” or some other classic rock song, for instance, I do so expressly because it remits me to the province of some distant era, where I can slow dance, or indulge in air guitar, with long-lost friends. The same is true, to a lesser extent, when I watch old movies or TV shows.

What happens with books is more like a collaboration. The reader has to use his or her imagination to construct an entire world; we become deeply identified with the characters.

The books we cherish most are those that activate the deepest parts of us — the parts that yearn for love, or fear loss, or struggle to escape the sorrows of our childhood. Rereading them helps us come to grips with the shifting contours of our inner life.

But what I’ve noticed, especially lately, is that I use books to help me understand the world around me, as well. Like many people who grew up in a world where personal computers or smartphones didn’t yet exist, I have been unsettled by the proliferation of devices in our lives. It was only in rereading Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 that I realized why: because I fear we are becoming hypnotized by our screens, surrendering our capacity to slow down and engage in serious discourse.

I recently revisited William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. Actually, full disclosure: I read the book to my son, Jude, who loves psychological horror. I figured it would offer him a more literary version of the chills he seeks out in writers such as Stephen King. What I found was something more haunting: a dark fable that spoke directly to the volatile rage that prevails in the America of 2019. The British boys trapped on their lush island were, it turned out, engaged in the same battle we face as a nation: whether we can find a civilized way to cooperate and rescue our fate, or whether we’ll descend further into savagery.

This need to make sense of the world helps explain why I continually circle back to Kurt Vonnegut, an author many readers leave behind in high school. I reread his novels because they explicitly address the aspects of public morality I find most upsetting: economic inequality, the proliferation of war, the hazards of technology, and environmental degradation. It’s not that I expect Vonnegut’s books to solve these problems; it’s that reading them helps me cope with my own frustrations. I become less angry, more forgiving, better able to accept the consequences of human folly.

In saying all this, I don’t mean to play down the pleasures, or merits, of seeking out fresh literature. There is a unique and unparalleled joy in reading a new book, or a book that is new to you. But in our quest for novelty, too often we dismiss the wisdom of our instincts.

In the end, I look at it like this: Rotarians use The Four-Way Test to construct a moral code for business and personal relationships. I return to my literary touchstones for the same reason. I want to lead a meaningful life, a life of fairness and service. Yet I know that can happen only if I rid myself of my delusions.

That’s why I keep returning to the books I love most. Those books still have lessons to impart; they’re still helping me understand the story of my own life.

Steve Almond’s new book, William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life, was published in June.

• This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.