Sunday, August 2, 2009

Vacation Reading or how many trips to Block Island will it take before I finish re-reading War and Peace?

A friend of mine said, “There’s no such thing as vacation reading for you now that you're retired. Now you’re always on vacation.”

Well, not exactly. All my life I’ve kind of divided reading into 2 groups: work and pleasure. There was overlap; books I read for pleasure sometimes wound up in my courses.

Bur despite the blurred boundaries, there was always this divide. Now that I am retired, I have my history of second wave feminism in Philly in the work category (more about that later) and the books I cart to the beach in the pleasure box.

The pleasure reading is in two categories: books I want to re-read before I check out and books I’ve never read. For some reason, I’ve been drawn to the re-reading category.

A few years ago I started with Dostoyevsky. I spent my adolescence devouring 19th century Russian novels. Sad to say, re-reading Crime and Punishment was a horrible disappointment. I barely got though it.

Next, I tried Anna Karenina. Reading it through a feminist lens was a very different experience than reading it as a teenager in the early 60’s. And I found Levin (the Tolstoy alter-ego character) insufferable.

Then I decided to tackle the highlight of my teenage years and brought War and Peace to Block Island last year (It’s not that I had such great literary taste as a teen. I also loved Gone with the Wind. I was drawn to big books with tons of characters.)

War and Peace worked out better than my other Russian re-reads. I’m in awe of Tolstoy's skill at portraying his characters’ mixed motives and the contradictory ideas they manage to hold in their heads at the same time. But despite my admiration for his genius, I only got through about ¼ of the book. When I got home I put it down and didn’t pick it up again for a year. And this was the book I once stayed up all night reading!

I brought War and Peace to Block Island again this summer and got to about the mid-point. I enjoyed it even more this summer but haven’t picked up the book since I returned. How many trips Block Island will it take before I finish re-reading War and Peace?

Anyone have experiences re-reading beloved books? Did they stand up to the memories???


  1. Hi Karen, The Golden Notebook swept me up when I read it as a young woman. I can remember a sense of wonder at how powerfully Lessing's work affected me, and many of my friends reported
    feeling similarly shaken. I approached rereading it a few years ago understanding that it wasn't likely to feel like a whirlwind again, but I was unprepared for how disappointing the work was. Lessing's writing seemed now to be brittle and mannered, and I put the book aside without finishing it.
    If, however, there were a Block Island incentive...well, perhaps I'd tackle it again. Good luck with War and Peace.

  2. Reni, I had a very similar reaction. I was overwhelmed by The Golden Notebook when I read it many years ago. I remember having to put it down and pace about the neighborhood for an hour to deal with the emotional turmoil. It hit too close to home.

    When I reread it about 5 years ago, I put it down about mid way for a very different reason. The book no longer spoke to me.

  3. I’ve just read all the posts on your blog/website and found them fascinating. It led me to consider my retirement so I’m sending along some thoughts which you sparked.

    Every year the cicadas start singing on August 1. They always made me sad because it meant the summer was over and it was time to go back to school. I actually enjoyed the teaching itself, but increasingly the administrative oppression got to me. This year I happily looked forward to the cicadas and their signaling my new-found freedom, but, perversely, the cicadas made me wait. Finally they started on August 11. What a restful sound.

    Retirement is both a pleasure and a relief. Although I was at the same college for many years, in some sense I was always an outsider in terms of the faculty (not, fortunately, in the view of students.) My stress level has decreased markedly since I retired in December.

    A newly-retired friend described my feelings exactly when she said, “I wonder how I ever had time to go to work.” I’ve been writing, reading gardening, dog training., and going to the gym 3 days a week.

    I was able to write an article reflecting on the visit of first graders to a college sociology class (a yearly event for 13 years), get a philosophical/sociology book off to publishers, also sent out to publishers a children’s book I wrote, am looking for a publisher for a friend’s autobiography of her abusive childhood which I helped her write, am almost finished with another sociology article, and have a long list of next projects. I always found time to write but never found time to tackle the job of finding publishers and the process that my husband descibes as sending out “applications for rejection.” Now, however, I’m determined to find homes for my writing.

    I too categorize my reading: theoretical works in philosophy and sociology that push me and that I have a tendency to get lazy about tackling; an odd assortment of nonfiction that includes semipopular scientific accounts, e.g., evolution, scientific frauds, antipsychology rants, gardening, dogs and dog training; and right now lots of mystery stories, my particular weakness.

    The only thing I’ve found difficult is that there still doesn’t seem to be enough time for everything. I thought I’d have lots of uninterrupted time, but life continues to bring interruptions. Fortunately there is always tomorrow.

  4. This past spring I reread West with the Night by Beryl Markham, a memoir of her girlhood and early adulthood in Kenya. She was motherless at an early age, raised on a remote coffee farm by her Dad, and became a professional pilot, one of the first (if not the first) women pilots in East Africa. I loved it just as much this time, perhaps more. It's beautifully written, full of adventure and evocative descriptions of East Africa, including some places I've been and long to be again. Leaves you wanting to know more about her personal and subsequent life. Highly recommended.

  5. Anonymmous in this case, Kathy Black. Thought I was logged in but couldn't figure it out.

  6. Kathy, Thanks for the recommendation. It's good to know that some books do not disappoint when re-read.

    I’ve been having a lot of bad luck with re-reading old favorites.