Once Is Never Enough

One of my reading goals this year is to reread some old favorites, so I was pretty stoked when I found out that this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic (from thatartsyreadergirl.com) is Books I Could Reread Forever. Because I’ve already got a list of those going! But it was also a good excuse to go and peruse my bookshelves, looking for my literary comfort food—those books I can pick up and read again and again, in whole or in part, and never, ever get tired of them. Some because they’re so meaningful to me or remind me of where and who I was when I first read them; some because they make me laugh; some because they’re just plain beautiful. I’ll let you guess which one is which—here is my list, in no specific order:

  1. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. I might have mentioned this a hundred times already, but this is the book that made me want to be a writer back when I was thirteen years old, when I first read it. And since then I’ve read it so many times, I’ve lost count. It’s probably, for obvious reasons, the book that means the most to me in the world, which I guess is why I have so many copies of it.
  2. Collected Stories by Tennessee Williams. I had such a thing for Tennessee Williams when I was in high school, and reading this book takes me right back to senior year, to cutting class to hang out in Mr. Buhtanic’s office—the head of the English department who turned me on to the wonders of Tennessee and other authors I probably shouldn’t have been reading. (I remember him recommending Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. but telling me not to let anyone know he told me about it. He was the best.)
  3. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. When this book came out I put off reading it for a long time because it was so popular, and I thought it was just more dumb chick lit. But when I finally picked it up, I was hooked because I was Bridget Jones. In my twenties I smoked too much and drank too much and often found myself getting involved with good-looking but highly inappropriate men. I was clumsy and awkward, always ready with the wrong thing to say. I’m older and married now, but I still relate to Bridget probably more than I should, and rereading this book always brings back some entertaining if not blush-worthy memories.
  4. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I reread this one last year for the third or fourth time (listened to the audiobook, actually, and it made my best-of-the-year list) and was still incredibly impressed by it. The story is so immersive, so sweet and scary and so, so tragic all at the same time. Every time I read it’s like I’m getting to know Clare and Henry all over again, and their story fills me with a sense of wonder and longing and hope that it will work out for them, even though I know how it’s eventually going to end.
  5. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Another one I reread last year, this one for I believe the fifth time. At 524 pages, you’d think once or twice might be enough, but I feel like I could read this one every year and still enjoy it. Tartt is a queen of world-building, and her characters are insanely flawed but flawlessly executed; I love that all of them, even the ones you’re supposed to like, have something vile about them. No one is completely likable here, and I just love that.
  6. The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice. Particularly The Vampire Lestat (one of my personal classics). I was so obsessed with these books when I was fifteen-sixteen. I had never read anything like them: the florid language, the epic story lines, the beautiful but damned characters. The fact that Interview with the Vampire didn’t have a happy ending was a complete revelation to me the first time I read it; it seriously turned my literary world upside down. These books had such an influence on me, everything I wrote in my mid- to late teens sounded like Anne Rice (and I think sometimes, to some extent, it still does). I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Interview and loving every overdramatic minute of it.

Thoughts on Fiction


My coworkers and I were chatting about books earlier this week and I found myself trying to explain my love of fiction, maybe for the first time ever. I’ve never had to explain this to anyone before. I assumed most people read fiction for fun. Maybe they do. I probably read more fiction than any other category.

I’ve always worked with smart people, and of course smart people come in all shapes and sizes with varied interests and concerns. Some smart people like business books, some like romance novels. But the people I work with now are, without exception, much more intellectual than I’m used to. There is no one on my team who will admit to reading mysteries on a cozy weeknight; they’re all reading about cognitive science or global economics.

So over beers my coworker is telling me about the book he’s reading now, Violence & Social Order: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. I could tell he was really enjoying learning from it and hadn’t just name-dropped it to sound impressive or superior. He was meeting a woman for a date the next evening and I had suggested he bring her a book as a way of starting a good conversation. When he told me what it was he was reading though I changed my mind. (I’m no expert in dating but starting off with a book about violence is probably not a great way to get laid. But I suppose I could be wrong. Who knows what those crazy millennials are into?)

I, meanwhile, was loving The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. A great thick multi-decade novel about the life of a man called Cyril Avery, set mostly in Ireland. The story opens with his 16 year-old pregnant mother being exiled from the church and her family and follows Cyril as he grows and experiences many different types of love and loss. “Maybe there are no villains in my mother’s story at all. Just men and women, trying to do their best by each other. And failing.” SO. GOOD. It’s definitely the best book I’ve read so far this year and I’ve been reading some great ones (I also loved The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui).

Anyway, my coworker was explaining that the thing he liked about his book on violence and social order was that the author created a clear framework and helped him understand the impact of one on the other. I started a friendly little argument with him about it — how could you trust this author? Don’t you feel like you need to read another book with a different perspective in order to know whether the first guy knows what he’s talking about? Arguing with him made me realize that one of the reasons I love fiction is that you very rarely get the perspective of just one person — it was written by a single person, of course, but in order to make the story work, it’s imperative that other characters have different perspectives. And when it’s done well — like in The Heart’s Invisible Furies — you end up with a fuller and more nuanced view of the world. I’m not gay, I don’t live in Ireland, and my mother was much older than 16 when she had me. I have literally nothing in common with Cyril Avery. But after reading his fictional story I feel like I know something about what a person like him might have experienced. I know just a little bit about what it’s like to be cast out of your family and church, about what it might be like to love parents who don’t understand children, what it might have been like to be in love with someone you could never tell.

To be clear, I try to never judge what anyone’s reading. What you read is your business, and you don’t need to justify it to anyone. It doesn’t make you a better or smarter person to read one thing over another. It’s just a matter of personal taste. And I’m glad my friend is reading about violence because lord knows we could use some people to figure out how to solve it. My point is just that sometimes getting into a friendly argument with someone who sees things differently than you helps you better understand why you love the things you love. And I unabashedly love fiction.