The potted peach tree on our deck has burst into bloom. This may be Virginia, but on overcast mornings with the fog rolling up from the creek valley and the trees shrouded in a “misty green veil” straight out of The Secret Garden, it’s easy to imagine myself in England. Always at this time of year, I find myself reaching for old favorites like Burnett’s classic tale of the reawakening of a neglected garden and neglected souls. I crave L. M. Montgomery, too; so far this spring it has been Anne of Windy Poplars—not at all my favorite of the Anne books, but what I was in the mood for—and The Blue Castle. This is the season in which my children rediscover Beatrix Potter and Brambly Hedge. I ransack the shelves for Katharine White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden, a collection of wry horticultural essays by the wife of E. B. White.
E. B.’s work, now, that’s summer reading. Charlotte’s Web may be the finest American summer novel ever written. I’ll have to think a bit to see if I come up with anything that tops it. In winter I want Beowulf, the Heaney translation, with a good fire going and, if possible, a howling wind rattling the windows. And Lord of the Rings, that’s definitely hunker-down-under-the-quilt material for me.
I was thinking about this tendency of mine to return to certain beloved novels over and over, interspersing them between new-to-me works of fiction and nonfiction, and it reminded me of the discussion of how long a book “stays read.” This time that question struck me from a new angle: I realized that I don’t necessarily want a book to stay read. The books that have touched me the most—books by Dickens, Austen, Tolkien, Alcott, Montgomery, Lovelace, Wilder, Eliot, Hardy, Wharton, Lewis, Forster, Byatt, Michael D. O’Brien, the incredible Fred Chappell—these are the books I return to time and again for refreshment of spirit and nourishment of mind.
I don’t think I want my own books to stay read. I want them to be books people return to with the joy and eagerness of reuniting with an old friend. How disappointing to be a passing acquaintance! Let something linger, yes, let some part of the book become a part of the reader; but let it be a relationship that renews itself from time to time.
There are many books I have read and lost: Gatsby, as I wrote in that earlier post, was one of them. After revisiting it as an adult, I find it has moved into the “will visit again with joy” category. The Pickwick Papers, though, that was most definitely a one-time read for me—and a long, hard slog it was. We shall have a nodding acquaintance, but I’m afraid we will never be close. A Room with a View, which I somehow never got around to meeting until last year, became at once a close friend, Anne-and-Diana close, a book I felt I’d known all my life before I was three chapters in. It is for me an August book, to be reserved for a certain kind of sun-drenched day, when the air is heavy but the heart is light.
*UPDATE: Final paragraph has been corrected: see explanation here.