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  • jjthorndike

Reading Them Over and Over

Updated: Sep 16, 2023

Browsing in a small bookstore in Steamboat Springs, CO, here on a Christmas trip, I picked up John Irving’s latest, The Last Chairlift. I have loved Irving’s novels for decades, and this is his first in seven years. It’s set, partly, in the Hotel Jerome, in Aspen. I know the hotel, I know that town a little—but the book is a ghost story and 900 pages long. I didn’t buy it.

There on the shelf as well was Cormac McCarthy’s latest, The Passenger. I love McCarthy, I used to see him writing, or taking notes, in a café in Santa Fe. I’ve read The Road twice and will likely read it again. But I didn’t buy The Passenger either. I’m in the midst of James Salter’s Light Years, and just now I don’t want to be distracted.

Is it age that does this, that sends me back to Salter again and again? I’ve read Light Years ten times already. More than that, because a copy lives between my mattress and headboard, and I drop into it over and over. Also, I’ve written about the twenty times I’ve listened to Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, on the CDs I keep in my car.

But no, this is a habit I’ve had since my youth. I was in high school when my mother gave me Justine, the first book of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. I read them all. I read them again. My senior year in college I persuaded a teacher to let me write a paper on Justine, a book not ten years old at the time and too fresh for most English professors. Just last year I read the Quartet again, for the eighth or ninth time. I remembered much, I had forgotten much, and I was glad to be carried back. It’s always new because I have changed, and the world has changed.

Reading the first lines of any of these three books is like turning on a fountain for me:

— “We dash the black river, it’s flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white.”

— “The Maytrees were young long ago.”

— “The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes....”

I’m missing out on some great recent works, I’m sure. But when I’m pulled by an old favorite, I yield to it.

From Justine’s first page:

“At night when the wind roars and the child sleeps quietly in its wooden cot by the echoing chimney-piece I light a lamp and limp about, thinking of my friends—of Justine and Nessim, of Melissa and Balthazar. I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city which we inhabited so briefly together....”

And of course the chains are not of iron. That’s the narrator’s delusion, as he will discover. Memories are flexible, sometimes imagined or deluded. Which makes me want to read the book again, and again.

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