Saturday, March 2, 2013

Where have you been all this time? The joy of rereading favorite titles.

I recently picked up my copy of The House with the Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs. Please understand, the books of John Bellairs have a special place in my heart. Maybe it has something to do with the memory I have of my father reading Bellairs year after year, to class after class of students. Maybe it has something to do with how identifiable Lewis Barnevelt has always been to me. Maybe I just have a strange addiction to the thrill of stories about social outcasts that regularly find themselves mixed up with supernatural forces that are out to get them. I didn't say it made sense, only that I felt it.

Anyway, I've read The House with a Clock in Its Walls, the first book in the Lewis Barnevelt series, at least a half dozen times in my life, and yet I still found myself drawn back into its pages recently. What is it about books like that? They sit on my shelves for months or even years, completely untouched, and then BAM! It's 12:30 A.M. on a weeknight and I can't stop reading because I'm in the middle of a chapter and I know a good part is coming up. The joy of a book like that never dies.

As an educator, I have a habit of reliving similar reading experiences many times. Anyone who stays at a job for more than one year consecutively will experience at least some degree of redundancy at some point. For me, that means reteaching the same concept more than once, rereading the same books, answering the same questions innumerable times, but knowing all the while that I might be the only person in the room for whom the experience isn't entirely new. If I'm teaching place value to the twelfth or twentieth different group of students that I can remember teaching place value to, it doesn't mean that class hearing it or experiencing it for the twelfth or twentieth time too. It would be wrong of me to teach it the way I'm feeling it. Sadly, that might mean I'm masking boredom around my students some of the time. And part of the time that I'm hiding my boredom might be while I'm reading a book that I've read enough times to recite it from memory. I don't want to mention any of the titles that float through my head when I write that, but some books are better off read once, but not twice.

That said, some books stand the test of time, and others don't. I've read the poem, "Homework, Oh Homework" by Jack Prelutsky, to enough students that I don't even need to pull out The New Kid on The Block to refresh myself on the order of the lines anymore. That's despite that fact that I am about as talented at memorizing as I am at bull fighting on the Moon. You would think "Homework, Oh Homework" would have lost some of it's former appeal, but I still laugh at the line about wrestling a lion alone in the dark almost every time. I can't prove that's to you in this medium, but trust me. It happens.

Every time I read Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls, I laugh when the monkeys get Jay Berry drunk, and I cry at the end. I'm referring to the book, not the horrific Disney movie adaptation. I'm sure the Disney movie would make Wilson Rawls cry, but not for the reasons that Disney might hope it would. I've reread that book enough times that I could probably write you a pretty good Cliff's Notes edition, but I don't regret it even once. I love the predictability of knowing just how a chapter is going to strike me. I love the relationship between Jay Berry and his Grandfather and it comforts me to read something so familiar, genuine, and goodhearted. It's truly one of the finest books I've ever read. I don't want to hit you with any spoilers, but if you don't tear up at least a little in the last scene of that book, I would recommend that you get some therapy because you're probably bottling up your emotions in a dangerous fashion.

I'm not alone in this rereading habit either. My entire family, with the exception of my wife and my mother, rereads favorite books. I don't try to figure out why two of the most important women in my life don't reread. I suspect it has something to do with their questionable taste in reading material. Rereading can be a powerful experience. It can give us a powerful jolt of nostalgia. It can change our perspective on something we thought we knew pretty well before. Certainly, rereading books that we remember from our childhood can provide us with a different outlook on the text or our younger selves. I recently reread a book by Bruce Coville that I was enamored with as an eight-year-old. I worked through the entire My Teacher is an Alien series in late elementary school. Upon rereading, I discovered that I still enjoyed the book, but a character that I remember liking when I was younger now seemed flawed and cowardly. I don't know how I didn't see that the first time I read, but time changes everything, I suppose, including perceptions.

I feel like rereading has a bad wrap among many readers though. I'm not saying rereading is always great. Rereading can be a strange and unproductive experience too. I know someone who rereads the entire Harry Potter series again and again without taking a break for other reading in between. Last I heard, she was on her fifteenth broomstick ride through Hogwarts. I don't know what can be gleaned from a record number of consecutive loops through the same books, regardless of how good the story was a first, second, or third time around, but I have to admit that as I went through the books and then the movies, more than once I returned to some moments in the books that I really enjoyed. Rereading is like a second look at something to enhance the first impression.

That said, I'm moving back through the three series by John Bellairs right now. If you haven't taken a look at John Bellairs' writing before, I highly recommend it. The three series that he created are that of Lewis Barnevelt (my personal favorite), Anthony Monday, and Johnny Dixon. Because Bellairs died with unfinished work, two of his series were continued by Brad Strickland. The Strickland books are equally entertaining in my opinion, though my father and I have discussed the matter extensively and have never come to a complete agreement. They are all realistic fantasy, as though that label isn't entirely befuddling. They contain elements of magic, macabre, horror, mystery, and adventure, all while being set ordinary, small towns in the mid-1900s. All three characters are likable to the reader, though they are generally unpopular with their own peers. They are the sort of protagonists that you root for despite remaining acutely aware of their outsider status at all times. If this is the sort of story that sounds like it could worm its way onto your reading list, then don't hesitate, but don't be surprised if you find it making its way back into your hands a few times after that first read. Rereading is probable. 

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