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Revisiting Old Friends

I’m late getting this out, but when I saw Booking Through Thursday‘s current topic of “Repeats,” I was compelled to answer. My answer may rebel or meander a little, but the general topic is something that has been on my mind lately.

Here’s the topic of the week:

What’s the first book that you ever read more than once? (I’m assuming there’s at least one.)
What book have you read the most times? And–how many?

The first book I read over and over again was The Lorax. It was probably my first passion, or obsession and I wouldn’t doubt that the empowerment of being able to select my own book from the library played into that in some way. The other book I read over and over as a child was The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. It’s an amazing book, and powerful; it was the first book that made me cry. I’m a little ashamed to admit that my interests became more dark and somewhat prurient as I got older and I read the Flowers in the Attic series by VC Andrews pretty compulsively as a teenager. It was my first exposure to a “naughty” book, even though it wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the bodice-rippers I read later on. The most recent series in my list of read and re-read is, of course, the Harry Potter books by JK Rowling. I think this series tops out the charts, as I read the first one at least 5 times, the second 4 times, and so on through book 4. I read 4-7 at least twice each. For a while, I would re-read the entire series in preparation for the movie releases. I didn’t do it with the last three movies because of time constraints (and because I upgraded to the hardcover books and they’re not as easy to lug around with me), but I’ll likely read them again when I need to give my brain a vacation.

Lately, as a part of the challenge I’ve initiated for myself, I’ve been revisiting a number of books that I read years ago. What I’ve discovered in doing so is that I missed a lot, whether because I wasn’t reading as deeply, or because I didn’t have the life experience to appreciate the real impact of the story, or because I wasn’t on the same level as the material being put in front of me.

The stories I read in high school that frustrated me beyond belief are the ones I like the most now. I’ve re-read the Austen stories and Shakespearean plays that made my eyes cross and have found a new appreciation and even a love for their complexities that soared over my head, confused and irritated me when I first read them. I found new depths and meaning in Dracula and Frankenstein that I didn’t realize when I read them the first time. Stephen King’s It gave me more chills the second time around, though I will admit that part of that may be related to the chilling voice talents that literally brought the screams on the page to life.

The most eye-opening experience so far has been Stephen King’s The Stand. When I read it for the first time, I was roughly 13 or 14 and I hated it. I slogged through all 1,100 pages of the uncut edition and couldn’t figure out why there were such glowing accolades for the story. I was grossed out by the symptoms of the superflu (or Captain Trips, if you prefer), bored by the military aspects that pop up during the break out and just befuddled by the rest. I am re-reading it now and finding it far scarier and more engaging than I did the first time. Much of the change in the way I’m reading has to do with maturity, I think. Perspective, experience and a more refined appreciation for writing have given me new insight into the story and the style, and I’m finding it much easier to relate to the characters as an adult than I did before. I’m looking forward to finishing this one, not because I’m dreading the next 800 pages, but because I’m looking forward to tearing down my recollections of my reactions to the story and replacing them. As much as I’m enjoying the story itself, I’m making something of a study of the way King crafted the characters, their individual story lines and then draws them together into the final conflict. I’m looking at it with a more critical eye, and I’m interested to see what I find that I don’t like as much as what I do like; what works, and what doesn’t.

Noticing these kinds of differences makes me both eager and hesitant to revisit the books I loved years ago. Was there something there that I missed that made me dislike it, or was it my perception and perspective at the time? What did I miss out on by dismissing it as one I wouldn’t read again? If I re-read it, will I love it as much as I did the last time? It’s like the moment of tension in a movie where the protagonist is standing on the porch, their hand hovering in the space between them and the doorknob and you’re not sure if they’re going to open it or not, and if they do, the excitement and fear of what is waiting behind it…

Revisiting an “old friend” and spending time between their pages again can emphasize the value of storytelling. Movies are unchanging, imagined by someone else and imprinted on film and while they may strike the view differently depending on mood or life experience, movies never quite achieve the mutative quality that books have. The you of today puts one face on a character, but time and experience will change it, give nuance, texture and greater depth to the author’s efforts and bring a sense of transformation. The boogeyman changes faces and shape, the fears strike a deeper chord, the reality becomes a little too real, love becomes a little too bittersweet, and though the words haven’t changed, the story impacts the reader more than any movie ever could by manipulating what already exists inside and using it to its advantage.

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