I had a conversation with a friend yesterday about books you come back to, books you re-read, books that become as familiar as old jeans. For him it was Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. You could hear the joy in his voice as he talked. He said I should read it and offered to buy the copy from me if I didn’t like it — sort of a money-back guarantee.
I have another friend who reads Thomas Howard’s Evangelical is Not Enough about once a year. It had a profound influence on his life when he first read it many years ago, and I imagine that his annual return helps him keep the edge on the blade. He talks about it like a guy recalling an old mentor.
What I find in such conversations is that people often have a few titles like this. Re-reading books is one of life’s joys, and for many of us it’s a necessary part of our literary experience.
“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once,” wrote C.S. Lewis in a letter to his friend, Arthur Greeves. Greeves was apparently not much of a re-reader, but Lewis confessed it “is one of my greatest pleasures.”
One the volumes to which I make frequent pilgrimage is Lewis’s own Till We Have Faces. It’s a stark and beautiful novel about all the good stuff, love and pride and jealousy. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it now, but I just can’t stop.
Montaigne’s Essays are like that for me as well. My copy migrates from room to room over the year as I pick it up and casually read a few essays here and there. I find him funny, shrewd, thoughtful, deeply feeling. If someone were to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I might say Montaigne.
I think that’s partly why we re-read books. We see something of ourselves in them. They are like inky mirrors that give us glimpses of our hearts and hopes. We add their words to the sentences that describe ourselves.
Perhaps it’s a value they extol, or a character we admire, or an adventure we wish we could join. Whatever the particular reasons for the particular book, we identify with them and just can’t do without.
Question: What are the books you come back to?