I use my Kindle a lot, increasingly so, but this one had to be a paper-bound, a ‘proper’ hold-in-your-hands book, resembling the original as far as possible. Now here it is, a plain-bound orange Penguin publication, the pages turned a little musty and brittle, original price 1 shilling and sixpence (the pre-1971 British currency). No, I am not as old as all that. It must have been my mother’s copy, first published in 1940 but reprinted in 1956. I first read it at some point in my teens, pulled down from the bookshelves at home. Remember having spare time on your hands?
The book in question is Mariana by Monica Dickens. I read several of hers around that point—you know how you can get into a reading groove with a particular author? Two of these were memoir, such as One Pair of Hands, but the novel Mariana had a special place. Maybe it was the rite-of-passage motif, the story of Mary (The Mariana of the title references the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson), from childhood to her twenties and marriage, looking back as she waits to hear whether her husband has survived his ship having been mined.
So it’s one from the past, a definite comfort read, the literary equivalent of hot chocolate with whipped cream and marshmallows. Just right for a sleeting and white-misty winter’s day indoors.
March of the Penguins
I have a row of old orange Penguin publications in a bookcase, dark-wood, vintage itself and glass fronted. Is there anything more nostalgic? And this recent purchase was another from eBay to join those from charity shops (thrift stores) and AbeBooks. A lot of these are ones I read years ago – Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm, for instance; Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat; several by W. Somerset Maugham, and others by Vicki Baum (I think Austrian writer and playwright Baum should be far better remembered).
In British newspaper The Guardian, journalist Tom Lamont recounts being seduced into rereading entire books when reaching back to favourite passages in, for instance, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited or LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, noting the resurgence of feelings produced by his first encounters with those works. He suggests that reliability is a factor in the attraction – if you were, variously, amused or thrilled by a book previously, it’s likely this effect will be replicated upon rereading. He also notes that some books bear re-reading because doing so uncovers a fresh layer each time. Lamont concludes by saying that “Rereading is therapy… I return to these novels for the same reason I return to beer, or blankets or best friends.”
In her article in The Atlantic, Emma Court takes this reading nostalgia back a step to child-hood books. Returning home as an adult to her old neighbourhood, she describes “… reaching for a comforting set of pastel-colored spines on my childhood bookshelf.” She notes how the experience can take the reader back to those infant and juvenile days, undergo an intense current of nostalgia, relive that early enchantment, yet, as Lamont also observed, gain the opportunity to see something new in those old favourites.
Personally, I don’t feel much attracted to childhood books for myself; however, I have bought a slew of them for my daughter, and some of these we have read together. Joyce Lankester Brisley’s Milly Molly Mandy books; Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams; Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden; Clive King’s Stig of the Dump; Robert C O’Brien’s The Silver Crown; older classics such as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and A Little Princess… And so many more. I want to share the pleasure with her – although, perhaps predictably, she is nowhere near the bookworm I used to be as a child.
We’ll read again
Of course, rereading something old and familiar may lead the reader onto the new… I enjoy biographies and autobiography; after my fix of nostalgia, I think I’ll look out Dickens’ 1978 autobiography An Open Book. Born into moneyed privilege, expelled from her expensive private school then undertaking experience as a domestic servant, a newspaper reporter, and, during World War 2, a nurse and aircraft factory worker, eventually marrying a US Navy Officer and going to live in the United States, becoming a successful author… It seems Monica had an interesting life.
Is rereading a pleasure or a waste of precious time when you could be discovering something new?
And if you enjoy rereading, which books do you return to?
Couts, E. ‘What Rereading Childhood Books Teaches Adults About Themselves’ in The Atlantic, 2018.
Lamont, T. ‘The Pleasure of Rereading’ in The Guardian, 2012.
Picture Rahul Shah via Pexels