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If you could read any book again for the first time, which would it be and why?

Have you ever felt sheer envy when someone you know announces they have never read your favourite book? Wished the Men In Black would turn up and perform a quick mind-wipe so that you could meet all your favourite characters for the very first time?


We asked the Write Yorkshire scribble that very question, and it turns out they know the feeling all too well...


There are many books, plays and poems I’d like to return to with fresh eyes, because, in my role as an English teacher, there are so many wonderful texts that I’ve read so many times that I could almost recite them backwards. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet; Dickens’ A Christmas Carol... I’ve read these texts year in, year out for decades, and I have often envied my students their first meeting with Mercutio, George and Lennie, the Nurse, Scrooge and The Ghost of Christmas Present; Lady Macbeth and the three Wyrd Sisters...


That said, the above texts are so rich that, no matter how many times I return to them, I always find something new nestled within their lines like an undiscovered diamond; and as I grow and change, my reaction to the texts follows suit. So maybe such classics are best read and re-read, in order for maximum enjoyment to be wrung out of them.


So, to return to the question, if I was to choose a book to re-read for the first time, I think it would have to be a funny one, so that the jokes could make me laugh out loud again, rather than provoke a wry smile of fond familiarity as they do on the fourth or fifth re-read.


And if that’s the case, the only choice I can make is Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. It’s one of the few books I actually vividly remember reading for the first time, as it was so unlike anything I was expecting it to be. The jokes made me howl with laughter, the slyly satirical literary references were an unexpected joy, and the whole thing was just such an utter pleasure that I’d love to read it all again without knowing what to expect.


This is a really tough question, there's so many great books that I would love to read for the first time again. I think I'd probably go with Sally Rooney's Normal People, though.


There's a whole host of reasons why, but one of the biggest is that it was an emotional education and I don't say that lightly. It really made me consider the way some people will compromise to the point of sacrifice, just in the hopes of making another person happy. The narrative provided a view on the toxicity love can have, regardless of intention, when you add other stressors in the mix and the overall complexity of navigating life as a young adult.


Marianne and Connell's relationship is so relatable in so many ways, to so many people, that there is almost a universality to the book. Everyone's experienced at least one part of it, and that kind of widespread relatability is hard to capture well. Rooney has an excellent way with words that not only makes her books beautiful to read, but delves into some incredibly hard subjects.


The emotional hangover was brutal, but it's a book that forced me to do a lot of thinking and I would love to experience that for the first time again, with the mindset I have now. I think it would be an interesting comparison.


God, this question is hard. At first I thought about choosing one of my very favourite books. One of those books that struck me, right to my core. A book that has stayed with me since I first peeked beneath its cover. Books like Dickens' Great Expectations or Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. Or John Fante's Ask the Dust. But then I realised, the thing that made these books so affecting and so important to me (aside from their brilliance) is that I read them at the perfect time in my life.


Reading these books again for the first time is a risk. I'm 100% certain that I would love them just the same. They are great books, after all. However, wiping my memory of them and reading them now could jeopardise the relationship I have with them. What if I think Grapes of Wrath is too depressing? Or Great Expectations is a bit of a slog? It's too risky.


So I had a better idea. My thought process was this:


"You can't re-read Grapes of Wrath, you might hate it. You're depressed enough as it is. Don't ruin that book for yourself. Read something that you didn't love so much the first time round. Something that you think you could love, if you read it now for the very first time".


That's why the book I choose is another Steinbeck. The first Steinbeck I ever read.


When I was at school, Of Mice and Men was on our assigned reading list for Year 9 English. I'd heard of John Steinbeck but I'd never read any of his books. I remember being bored by the long, meandering descriptions and seemingly endless details. For a book a little over a 100 pages long, it felt like Moby Dick. Somehow our teacher stretched our reading and dissecting of the classic piece of literature over an entire school term. A book that had I picked it up by myself, I'd have read in an afternoon. I found it so boring. Then we got to the end.


That ending shook me. "Are they allowed to do that?!" I was devastated. I didn't know they could end books like that. I'd just started to enjoy reading it and then that climax happened.


Now imagine how it would have impacted me had I read it a few years later, privately - without having my teacher dissect every detail for metaphor and meaning, two pages per lesson. If I had read it alone at my own pace and let the story happen naturally, that book would have ripped my heart out and ground it into the dust with the heel of its boot. And that's what books are for isn't it?


There are so many angles to take on this one. My first thought was that I should choose a favourite, so I could experience that wave of revelatory love and joy all over again. Then I started to think about the books I should have enjoyed but didn’t, because they were enforced reading on the high school curriculum. And what about the books that I read too early in my life to fully appreciate? By reading them again now, as an adult, could I find something special in those books that bypassed me the first time? I started to wonder if the smart and responsible thing to do would be to give this honour to a book I really didn’t like…


And then I started to think about why I read. I quite often watch friends engrossing themselves in high-brow literary staples like Hemingway or Steinbeck or Joyce and feel a real twinge of envy that I can’t quite find it within myself to fully appreciate their work. I regularly felt like an imposter on my Creative Writing MA, when classmates would rave over the genius of a challenging contemporary set text - a set text I had probably given up on after two chapters in favour of re-reading Stig of the Dump or The Silver Chair.


Simply, I don’t generally read to challenge myself. I read because I love stories. I adore stepping through paper portals and escaping into other worlds for a while. Books are powerful that way.


So I’m going to do myself a favour. The book I would choose to re-read again for the first time will come with a caveat - a note taped to the cover telling me not to read it right away, but to wait for the opportune moment. The moment when the world is bleakest. When that time comes, give yourself this gift:


'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.'


 

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Cover image by Nong Vang via Pixabay

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