Cracked spines and well-thumbed pages


Cracked spines and well-thumbed pages

MERCIA S. BURGER likes to reread her favourite books. Some have stood the test of time, while others sound like Drew Barrymore's chat show on a bad day.


I ALWAYS return to my treasures. My pet books and darlings, my sentimental stalwarts and all-night companions, my wine-drinking books and the books with which I know I have to work a little harder. I'm not talking about nonfiction, short stories or poems. I'm talking about novels and novellas standing in my bookshelf with cracked spines, the narrative concluded and the characters greeted by hand …  goodbye! Because I'm a rereader — I read some books a second time, and sometimes even once more, just for the charm, the familiarity, the vision and appreciation they bring to my life; the entertainment, nostalgia and enjoyment.

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Unfinished business

Italo Calvino writes in an essay that “… to read a great book for the first time in one's maturity is an extraordinary pleasure, different from […] the pleasure of having read it in one's youth". In my jaded youth, I was often too ignorant, too impatient or perhaps just too lazy to appreciate certain texts. Fortunately, I am afforded another chance.

Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys initially disoriented and bewildered me. Some time passed before I ventured into a reread. This time I know that Rhys grew up on Dominica (and that Dominica is not the same as the Dominican Republic), that I should know my Jane Eyre (1847) and that a foreword by Edwidge Danticat clarifies things.

When it comes to Cormac McCarthy, I was startled too soon with the first read. The banal characters and that constant feeling of horror were too much. I reread Child of God (1973) and Blood Meridian (1985) and they're still teeming with Old Testament disasters and misery. But I read differently, like someone for whom violence is constantly in my peripheral vision. I can't look away any more. Those long sentences without punctuation, in-between dialogue, short knockout lines that send you reeling through the storyline. And I see the difference between reality and the grotesque getting smaller all the time.

“And so it goes," Billy Pilgrim would say. And Billy would know, because he is the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). Billy, like Vonnegut, was a prisoner of war in Dresden, which was flattened by bombs during World War 2. With each reread and a little more knowledge of the events of February 1945, I grasped how the ingenious Vonnegut uses science fiction as a metaphor for war trauma. “And so it goes," a blinding light.

Will our old acquaintances ever forget?

The 50th anniversary edition of Fear of Flying (1973) by Erica Jong makes me curious about my younger self. At the time, I was reading this book alongside Entertaining Angels (1992) by Marita van der Vyver. Isadora and Griet and I have our own reunion.

I feel the anxiety of my younger days returning, the crazy infatuation, fleeting relationships, the shames and indifference. Camel Lights and a cold apartment in Sunnyside. One day there was … When I still tried to dream of Mandela's fairy-tale world, of a white wedding and children, but didn't quite know how. I also wanted a therapist, to go to Florence, spend Christmas in Paris (France) and read The New Yorker. But mostly I wanted to know as much about literature as Erica and Marita. About Sylvia Plath and her oven, Flannery O'Connor's peacocks and Alice in Wonderland. I wanted to quote Simone de Beauvoir and fall in love with Virginia Woolf. I wanted to know everything and I wanted to be brave.

On my reread list is A Long Letter to My Daughter (2021), but when it comes to Erica's Fear of Dying (2015), I still respectfully stand back.

Old favourites

Then there are my old favourites I can't resist, texts that have been constantly folded into my memory. That moment when you listen to familiar background music and hear a new tune.

Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (1997) is always a piece of magic. This is how I want to write one day, I think when I reread paragraphs. The same feeling I get with The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers. I listened to it as an audiobook in the gym to make the hell of cardiovascular exercise bearable, and immediately realised I'd have to read the book. I did, more than once.

At first, Christoffel Coetzee caught me off-guard with his believable and “well-documented historical novel", Op soek na Generaal Mannetjies Mentz (1998), which was a rumour all along. A factual fantasy with quite a few little twists to think about.

Ryk Hattingh and Huilboek (2016) had a more sombre voice this time around. Now I have to read without him: “Who would think that a voice like mine would ever be heard? […] Dead and quiet at last, they thought I was."

And during a recent reading slump — those times when your concentration is low and you cut your own hair at night — I end up again with Apollo, the Great Dane in Sigrid Nunez's The Friend (2019). “Dogs are the best mourners in the world …" Now I'm looking forward to her new novel, The Vulnerables (2023).

On the Road (1957), by Jack Kerouac, still rolls enjoyably through the Arizona desert to me, but second opinions are sometimes like heartburn. Kerouac's Satori in Paris (1966) reads like a folly years after my adolescent crush. My inner wolf must have become a little chubby and settled down as well, because Steppenwolf (1927) by Hermann Hesse sounded like Drew Barrymore's chat show on a bad day with a recent reread. As for Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye (1951), I wanted to dig him in his ribs within the first few pages.

But let's spare a moment for James Joyce and Finnegans Wake (1939). A reading group in California spent 28 years reading this book and immediately began rereading it upon completion. Apparently, it's a thing — reading groups around the world, among others in Zurich and Dublin, do the same. The New York group are progressing the slowest because they argue too much. I read a few paragraphs of Finnegans, reread them, re-reread them and left it there with an appropriate quote from this text: “Mastabatoom” and “tolfoklokken” it.

Backwards and forwards

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it," Vladimir Nabokov wrote in Lectures on Literature (1980). For as one can never cross the same river twice, one cannot read the same book again. Each time you are a different reader with a different reading experience.

So, here's the thing: rereading, I suspect, is never a coincidence. If you reread, it is premeditated, a deliberate decision, a text you specifically look up and return to. The first time you follow the story, with a reread you follow yourself.

I already have some books to be reread on my desk. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) from my school years, JM Coetzee before he emigrated, Ryk Hattingh's Ignatius Brand (1990) and the Jewish writer Amos Oz. Perhaps also 1984 of George Orwell, given that it is 2024 and that I first read the book in 1984.

I'm excited, I'm privileged. It will not be a repeat but rather a walk ahead, backwards.

♦ VWB ♦

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