Rereading Is Time Travel

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Last month, I said with all the hope in the world, “It may make me a basic b*tch, but I’m looking forward to some fresh start energy.”

The January-ness of a new year is everywhere right now: in the aggressive diet-culture ads that play when you watch anything with ads; in the lists exhorting you to buy new notebooks, make new routines, write resolutions or banish the entire concept of resolutions from your vocabulary. It is either/or: you will start new or you won’t. You will be a new person or you won’t. You will be a different reader, or you won’t. 

But it isn’t, of course. We’re ourselves, and we’re everyone we used to be (to borrow a thought from Joan Didion). The fresh start is always false and always true at once: It’s a new year (by some calendars), but as arbitrary markers of time go, it only is what you make of it.

I’m tempted to turn up my nose at new year shenanigans, sometimes. Maybe often. I want to do and learn and read and start new things all the time. And yet I’m an absolute sucker for this ritual, this start-over, this attempt to game the flat circle of time. And so I find myself wondering: What does a fresh start in reading actually look like?

In October, I went to see a band play a concert for the first time since February of 2020. It was the longest I’d gone without seeing a show since I was 13 years old. During the show—this strange, alternate-universe show of vax cards and damp masks—the singer said something that struck me: “Music is time travel.” 

He is not the first or only person to say this, but while I stood there, sweating, anxious, listening to songs I’d been listening to for more than 20 years, it made a specific, almost physical kind of sense. You hear a song, and you hear an echo of all the other times you’ve heard that song, all the other places you heard it played, all the other people you were with when you sang along with it.

And then I typed in my phone: “Reading is time travel.” But really it’s rereading that’s time travel. Sure, you can visit different eras of history through a novel or a book about an era, but that’s all external. Rereading is your own version of time travel, a trip through the other time(s) you read a book, the other things you noticed about it, the other ways you related to or hated the characters. Rereading The Book of Three, I remember fifth grade, that we read that book for class but I then went and read the entire rest of the Chronicles of Prydain, unstoppable in my adoration for Princess Eilonwy and her glass bauble. (I really didn’t know what a bauble was.) Rereading A Wizard of Earthsea is always like coming home. Rereading A Room With a View was like reading an entirely new book.

If you are currently shaking your fists and saying But Molly, every new book is a new beginning and a fresh start! Well, you’re right, of course. You can always pick up a new book when you need a new start. (I picked up Light From Uncommon Stars on January 1st.) For a new year—for that elusive fresh start—you might read a book about someone shaking up their life, or the starting off on a journey. It’s a Fellowship of the Ring time of year, not at all time for The Return of the King. It’s time to set out, to slip off the rope and push off from the shore, to throw things into a rucksack and let your feet find the way, at least metaphorically and fantastically speaking. Or it’s time to find a berth on a new ship, to set foot on a strange planet, to wake up from a decades-long journey across the stars.

But here’s the thing about new years and new yous: You’re still you. Different, grown, shrunk, older, wiser, more foolish: you, in whatever form you take at the moment. Restarting a journey you’ve been on before is a way to bring yourself back into it, the you of today and the you from whenever you read it before. You know the beats, the characters, the slow-burning romances and the unrequited loves; you know when you’re going to be unable to put the book down for a few chapters and when (shh, it’s okay) you might skim a little bit. A familiar fictional fresh start—especially in this year that feels like 2020 III: Russian Doll Edition—doesn’t pretend to be entirely new. It leaves room for the parts of you that don’t feel caught up and fresh and bursting with resolution and new lists of weekly goals. It holds space for the reality that we’re always starting over, always picking up new threads and weaving them into the old, always facing a new day full of possibility and exhaustion. 

It feels more realistic, to me, to call up a fresh start by going on a rereading journey than a totally new one. I can’t tell you what to reread; I don’t know which books you return to, or which you haven’t read in years. Maybe you go back to a tried and true favorite. Maybe you reread something that seems like it might not have held up that well (maybe you have the singular experience of feeling like you held up better than the book did). Maybe you get lost in the halls of Piranesi and remember what it’s like to come out of that book feeling like you truly experienced something, something a little bit beyond reading. 

Me, I keep looking at Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which is one of those books that feels like it contains an entire world. I’ve been putting off reading her new novel because once I’m done with it I’ll be done with it and then I won’t have it to look forward to anymore. (I know. This is a special kind of illogic.) Maybe I want to set out again with Dex, from Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built, a perfect book about change and finding one’s way in the world.

Rereading is time travel. It’s also a way to cut yourself some slack, to give yourself a little more space and comfort as the new year settles its chilly gloom around our hopeful shoulders. I might take a bookish journey back to being a kid who wrote in notebooks all the time, happy and solitary, unconcerned with the fate of any of those words. Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane is good for that, for me. Which version of yourself will you visit on the page?

Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.

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