No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally — and often far more — worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond. (C.S. Lewis)
If C.S. Lewis said it, then it must be true. One hardly need convince me that good literature feeds the soul and that the best books are worth reading again and again. I never leave home without a book at my fingertips or a book recommendation on my tongue.
Over the years I have found what I call “soul books” — kindred spirits that I read yearly, seasonally or simply when I need a comfort read. Not all books reach this status, but I have quite a few on my list. Books by Robin Jones Gunn, Francine Rivers, Lisa Wingate and Louisa May Alcott, to name a few. What I’ve experienced over many years of reading and re-reading is summed up by Louisa May Alcott: “Some books are so familiar that reading them is like being home again.”
When I pick up one of these books to read again, I often times expect a sentimental road trip or a brainless read. But instead, I “always find a new book,” as C.S. Lewis put it. My life experiences have changed. I am older, in a different phase of life, and these books speak to me in a completely different way than when I was a teenager, a college student, young single, young married or young mom.
For example, take Harry Potter. Not to douse Harry Potter fandom, but I hated the fifth book. I felt agitated during the entire book and at the end I was simply ticked off. (Vague spoilers ahead.)
Harry was nothing short of angsty, brooding and irritating. I wanted to shake him and say, “Get it together, man!”
A key (and favorite) character is murdered. I wanted to give J.K. Rowling a piece of my mind. “Lay off the death and lay off Harry! I’m trying to enjoy reading this book!”
I re-read the series again about 10 years later with my son. In that amount of time, much had changed for me. I had three kids. I had lost my dad and several other family members in tragic and unexpected circumstances. I had walked through a situation of stinging betrayal unlike I had ever experienced.
I read through the fifth Harry Potter book and I cried — often. The characters are in terrifying and uncertain times. Many have died, friendships have been betrayed. And I understood Harry. Losing so much breeds a certain amount of anger and fear that cannot be dismissed with trite words or even personal desire. Instead of shaking him, I thought, “I get you, Harry. I get you.”
Even the character who dies in the end affected my heart in a different way. A bit angry, yes, but mostly a sad resignation. I get it, this extreme loss — unfair, senseless, confusing, part of life.
Also new to me was my connection to Molly Weasley, the spunky and endearing mom in the book series. Molly had always been so strong and fearless and determined, even with the characters living in a time of great danger and extreme stress. Although Molly walked with courage and hope, she was not immune to the mounting effects of fear and stress. There is a scene where she is battling a boggart (a harmless creature who takes the form of what you most fear). This boggart becomes, in succession, the corpses of her husband, her children and Harry, whom she loves as a son. She can’t fight it. Harry finds her sobbing and dispatches the creature. I was sobbing by the end of the scene. I have battled that fear. I have felt completely paralyzed. Watching her I empathized but also evaluated how I react to my fears and how I deal with stress.
In great literature, I become a thousand different men but still remain myself. (C.S. Lewis)
And what would a post on re-reading popular and classic pieces of literature be without mention of Jane Austen? Not much of anything to be sure. Pride and Prejudice had always topped my list, followed closely by Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion. Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey came next, and Emma sat at the bottom. Emma was my most disliked heroine. Flawed. Irritating. Arrogant. Manipulative.
Life has a way of humbling your soul — in a good way. When I read Emma now, I relate to her. Her flaws breed hope in my heart. Her failings and weakness allow me to examine my own. Her triumphs and ultimate heart change bring tears to my eyes (I cry a lot). Her transformation is painful to watch and read, but the reality is that change is painful especially in our own hearts. The hope comes from seeing that transformation is possible. There is nothing encouraging in perfection. As Austen herself wrote in a letter to her niece, “Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked.”
Reading gives me the opportunity to view my life as Ebenezer Scrooge does in A Christmas Carol. A clearer lens, an outside perspective. Re-reading books gives me that same experience, but more so, because I can see how my life has changed. I can trace my change in heart and perspective. I can see where I have erred and where I have triumphed.
Literature irrigates the deserts that our lives have become. (C.S. Lewis)
Our lives need fresh water. Which book will you re-read first?