How you can buy books this good for £1 plus £2.75 postage all the way from the US defeats me, but I did, a brand new hardback copy arrived and I had yet another lovely book to add to the Books About Reading shelf but with a little added extra,
'...it is a book about time, with rereading as a special sort of time travel.'
As Wendy Lesser revisits books she first read twenty or thirty years ago she explores what books can mean to our lives and the changes that happen along the way, and in her forties at a time when she feels
'the journey matters more than the arrival.'
But I was so grateful to Wendy Lesser for defining something else
'Time is a gift, but it can be a suspect one, especially in a culture that values frenzy. When I began this book everyone I knew seemed to be busier than I was. I supported myself, contributed my share to the upkeep of the household and engaged in all the useful wifely and motherly duties and pleasures. But I still had time left to read.... I had constructed a life in which I could be energetic but also lazy; I could rush but I would never be rushed. It was a perfect situation for someone who loved to read.'
It's the first question people interested in dovegreyreader usually ask me...
' How do you manage to read so much?'
and I end up waffling my way through some poorly argued justification for being a besotted reader (if you've asked me you'll know this) which always sounds a bit lame, when in fact I don't think I do read 'so much', probably no more than very many of you, perhaps writing this gives the impression that I do. But unless you are a reader too, people are often very suspect at the whole idea of devoting so much time to something so seemingly inactive and passive.
I can see them thinking it's all a bit lazy isn't it, whereas if I played 18 holes of golf four days a week (as some people I know do) they wouldn't bat an eyelid...how lovely...what's your handicap (can someone explain that to me...what exactly is a golf handicap?)
I'm always up for a good nostalge but I have no illusions about the dangers of it or the need to keep it in perspective, and whilst Wendy Lesser identifies that danger of escapism... fleeing into the past because we can no longer tolerate the present, I wanted to reread The Bookshop as a bit of a test run because I rarely allocate time to reread. There are too many new books to explore but having pledged a complete Penelope Fitzgerald reread I wondered if I could or would recreate that first read of my first book of hers. I'm also going to be exploring Nabakov, and Lolita features in The Bookshop so I thought it was all a nice reading plait to weave and now that I have reread perhaps it features much more than I had realised.
I remember it so clearly, December 2003, someone had recommended The Bookshop and I settled down with it in front of a cracking winter fire and didn't move a muscle until I'd finished it. Forget golf, this was a literary hole in one, something I couldn't quite pin down had struck very deep and permanently into my reading psyche, I'd read a book that had a quiet power and knew I'd hit a personal mother lode, would rapidly be able to bore for England on the subject of Penelope and had ordered everything else she'd written within hours.
Being a bit of a geeky reader I also set up a Penelope Fitzgerald file (several of my favourite authors have these, I haven't quite been able to surrender everything to the depths of the laptop, paper still has its place) and in those days when printer ink cartridges didn't cost as much as a tank of petrol (do they have us over a barrel? Yes they do) I set to, made it a nice cover and scoured the internet for every reference and interview I could find. As I recall I wrote to Wendy Lesser because I kept finding mentions of pieces she had written and she kindly helped me track those down.
So I've just gone back over that file and found the essay Penelope wherein Wendy Lesser examines why the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald had such a profound effect on her, and if you're interested you'll find it in On Modern British Fiction edited by Zachary Leader and published by OUP.
' There is a kind of rereading in which you go over and over a piece of writing (a paragraph, a page,a few stanzas) to try to figure out why it has the effect on you it does. This kind of rereading is obsessive and a bit tedious; it may be especially dull for the onlooker who does not share the obsession...it has in it something of Penelope's nightly unweaving of her daily work as she waits for Ulysses uncertain return. She is trying to keep time still and at the same time move it forward. Something similar may be said of the obsessive reader.'
So I settled down with The Bookshop again, six and a bit years on, and I had an almost identical reading experience. The book and I could not be parted but this time because I was close reading and discovering what lay beneath. Penelope Fitzgerald is legendary for writing a book double the size of the one in your hand and ruthlessly cutting out half of it to avoid insulting her reader thus allowing them to do the work.
Wendy Lesser finds likewise,
'I find it somehow perfect that the key moment of the climactic scene in a Penelope Fitzgerald novel should be a moment of spontaneous silence. It is in these wordless moments - the ones between the lines, or before the lines begin, or after they end - that her stories have their secret life.'
I was transfixed but noticing differently if that makes sense and one little paragraph jumped right out and bit me and whisked me back forty something years to when I was ten and a half, more of that when I post about the book and I'll also be remembering Penelope Fitzgerald again on Wednesday, the tenth anniversary of her death.
But I wonder how many of you are re-readers and whether it has this effect on you too, and I'd love to know those books you re-read often.