Why would anyone read the same book more than once, when there are so many books to read? In a scene from the film Memento, Guy Pierce asks his wife this question as she reads a book she’s read countless times before, making me wonder why I do the same thing. She answers him with “It’s good, I enjoy it.” Simple explanations are often the best kind. I ask readers at the bookstore where I work which books they read over again. Mostly they are the usual suspects: Little Women, Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice; sometimes the picks are unusual. Naturally they are good books, but the reason they are read repeatedly is what interests me.
The selections most likely are rooted in personal reasons. I never ask why they read them again. I have my own reasons for reading Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady over and over again. For such a dusty sounding title, the book is exceptionally full of life. James has created a living, breathing world in exquisite detail that I want to keep revisiting. I’ve followed protagonist Isabel Archer through her discoveries and disappointments a dozen times, and each time it feels like picking up with an old friend, albeit a complicated and at times confounding friend.
The story begins with her journey to visit relatives in England, where she is given a large gift of wealth from her dying uncle. This allows her independence, a rare thing for women of that era. She travels Europe, turns down great proposals of marriage and finds herself in conflict with her idealism when she faces forces darker than she believes possible in a human heart. James generously brings his characters to life, illuminating them wholly, with flaws and idiosyncrasies. Critics would probably not classify this as a love story, but I think it is a story of great love. The love story does not make itself known until nearly the end of the book, when then it becomes something transformative. The person who loved Isabel asked nothing from her but that she live her life well, so that he could take pleasure in witnessing it. Throughout difficult years of sorrow and disappointments she unknowingly had his love—a light from a distant sun warming her all along. Truly selfless acts have the ability to slay me. This story makes me cry every time I read it. Great love stories are more than just stories of passion and ecstasy—sometimes they are quiet, unlikely, and beautiful to behold.
It’s been said that there are really only seven basic stories retold throughout time. The character in Memento responds to his wife reading the same book again by saying “I always thought the pleasure of a book was in wanting to know what happens next.” Generally that is true, but most of us know what’s going to happen. We’ve read the same stories told in innumerable ways. We’re born, we live, and we die. Some are told so exceptionally well that they’re worth experiencing again, and the pleasure lies in returning to them like old friends, picking up right where we left off.