Monday, April 23, 2018

Read It Again: Re-reading Favorite Books

Since I was a kid, I've had a habit of re-reading my favorite books. Until very recently, I've felt somewhat guilty about doing this; there are so many good books I haven't read, why waste my reading time on something I've already seen?! But I've recently discovered the value of revisiting the books that have had the most meaning for me.

My first experience re-reading favorite books, I'll admit, grew out of my status as a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien (some would say "fan"; most would say "geek"). My folks gave me a copy of The Hobbit (in 5th grade, I think), and then The Lord of the Rings trilogy (I'm guessing 6th grade). To say I was taken with these fantasies is an understatement; I continue to re-read all four books into my extreme middle age! I've always suspected laziness as a primary motive - why read a new book when I can revisit such classics?!

My perspective started to change maybe ten years ago. When I first started learning to use stock dogs, a friend recommended The Farmer's Dog by John Holmes. I read it, liked it, but didn't fully understand it. Several years later, I read Talking Sheep Dogs by Derek Scrimgeour (a shepherd and sheepdog handler from the UK). Again, I read it, liked it, but failed to understand the intricacies of starting and using a sheepdog. Several years into my experience working with border collies, however, I re-read both books - and realized that I understood more of both. I also realized, at last, how much more I had to learn.

My reading redundancy isn't limited to fantasy and sheepdog instruction; I've also re-read a number of other favorite authors. In each case, I can distinctly remember when and where I discovered each writer. I found English Creek by Montana author Ivan Doig, in the gift shop at the Monterey Bay Aquarium when I was in college. In sharing this new book with my friend and mentor John Ross (himself a native Montanan), I was introduced to Norman McLean and A River Runs Through It. In my early professional career, another mentor, Karen Ross (currently the California Secretary of Food and Agriculture), introduced me to Wendell Berry and his work, The Unsettling of America. I've since read everything these authors have written.

Now that I have a daughter living and studying in Montana, I'm finding myself returning to Ivan Doig's work. I read his first book, the memoir This House of Sky, when I was in school. I'd re-read much of his fiction; I hadn't re-read this book until this spring. I bought a copy (I guess I'd loaned my original out) and read it on the way home from Bozeman (where we'd been visiting Lara). And I finally realized why I enjoy re-reading the books that have meant the most to me.

I have found, ultimately, that the quality of these authors' writing, and the experiences of my own life, bring new meaning to each reading of their work. As I've worked at my own writing (in no way comparable to that of Doig, McLean or Berry), I've often thought I've been handicapped by my own stress-free life - my parents loved me (and I, them), I've always been gainfully employed (for the most part); in other words, I've had things pretty easy. In my first reading of This House of Sky, I was struck by the hardships Doig and his family endured. His mother died when he was a small boy; his father and his maternal grandmother (who ultimately raised him) didn't get along (at least at first); his father jumped from ranch job to ranch job (the story of many whose families tried to homestead in the Mountain West).

As I read the book this time, however, I realized that my own life experiences have shaped the person I am today (just as Doig's experiences shaped his own life). My life has been easy compared to the people of Doig's (and my folks') generation, certainly; but most people who have lived a half century have overcome some kind of challenge. For me, having known drought, business failure, and poor livestock markets, I can identify with Charlie Doig (Ivan's father) more today than I could when I was 25. I can understand Wendell Berry's fictional character Burley Coulter, whom Berry describes as "never learning anything until he had to." I've realized that these characters (real and imagined) are part of me - the quality of the writing and the authenticity of their experiences make these works a vital part of my own life.

And so finally, at the age of 51, I no longer apologize for re-reading good literature. I understand, at last, that reading is a partnership. The author, certainly, tries to convey certain emotions and thoughts; the reader, if he or she is thoughtful, brings his or her own life experience to these works. The older I get, the more I understand (at least when it comes to my favorite books)! The older I get, the more these works help me understand my own experiences.

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