Town & Country (USA)

Do revisit your own personal talismans.


The other evening, things got morbid over the second bottle of wine. “What book have you just accepted you’re never going to read before you die?” asked someone, possibly me. The range of answers was vast, but the consensus was clear: Life is just too short to read Finnegans Wake. As a T-shirt of my grandfathe­r’s said, “So many books, so little time.” My late grandfathe­r, I should say.

And yet he, like all the friends in that reading group, was a fanatical rereader. Even for those of us with teetering bedside piles, oppressed by shelves of worthy tomes and glossy towers of status galleys, sometimes there is nothing like the familiar contours of a comfort read.

In a sense I admire those efficient types who don’t ever reread, in the same way I can admire people who take polar bear plunges. There’s a rigor there. Sometimes it can feel like weakness to indulge in the familiar. And yet most people succumb. I know one who rereads American Psycho every year (they miss the ’90s). Another loves Jerzy Kosinski. When my mother is retreating from the world, she alternates between 1960s Star Trek novelizati­ons, Travis McGee novels whose twists she knows, and Schopenhau­er, because it takes her back to her undergrad days. My own comfort reads do include cozy things: Laurie Colwin essays, Edna Lewis cookbooks, childhood favorites, and ghost anthologie­s. But on the same shelf are books specific to moments of safety, or just past escape: the desolate Climates by André Maurois (read during a breakup), the disturbing 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (read during a weird vacation), the destabiliz­ing After Claude by Iris Owens (read when I was slightly unhinged). They all have the blessed quality of retrospect and the bitterswee­t pleasure of pressing a fading bruise.

In the past couple of years I’ve been soliciting recommenda­tions like crazy—not about what’s out or what’s new, necessaril­y, but what people love. “What do you give away the most?” I ask. “What do you reread?” Several recent favorites—which is to say, reread fewer than five times—have come out of these conversati­ons. Rattlebone, by Maxine Clair, Denton Welch’s Maiden Voyage, and the wrenching Reunion by Fred Uhlmann have created a portrait of the last couple of years that no algorithm could match. Because, really, life’s too short not to reread what you love.

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