Old Friends

Yesterday I did something that, according to Goodreads, I haven’t done in at least four years. I re-read a book.

On Friday night, I finished the last of the books I had downloaded to my Kindle via Libby via my local library (The Year of Less by Cait Flanders) and so while I wait for my next hold to come in (will it be The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel or More Than Enough by Elaine Welteroth? I can’t wait to find out), I turned to my bookshelf.

I was a late adopter of e-readers, but once I started travelling and moving around frequently, and realised that I could bring hundreds of books with me on a single device rather than stuffing my suitcase with novels and risking the wrath of overweight luggage fees, I never looked back. These days, I only read physical books if I’m too eager to wait for a hold to come in at the library’s online account. In part, it’s because I can’t bear to get rid of my books unless I can find a friend I think will love them that I can pass them along to. I’m sure once I settle down I’ll go back to buying stacks of books at used bookstores and library book sales, but for now my e-reader gives me what I need.

I also used to be a voracious re-reader. Every year for years I would return to Hogwarts, Middle Earth, and other favourites. In my senior year of high school, you didn’t have to take the final exam for any class in which you were averaging an A, so through the last month of all of my classes I revisited the adventures of Harry and friends at my desk with impunity. But with my to-read list consistently growing longer, over the past few years I haven’t been able to bring myself to pick up a book I’ve already read when I could be delving into something new. I know that even if I live to a hundred and twenty I won’t be able to read all the books I want to, but I’m going to get through as many as I can.

I own some books that I haven’t read. Ithaca, the town where I went to college, had a massive library sale, one of the largest in the United States and one of the most hotly anticipated times of my college years. Each semester I’d line up outside their huge warehouse to browse through hundreds of thousands of books. The best part was the final day of the sale, when an entire grocery bag full of books cost less than a dollar–I’d grab anything that looked the least bit interesting and carry home armfuls. Then there are the books I’ve received as gifts over the years, the books from other library sales and used booksellers, and those that have just appeared somehow on shelves and in piles in my room. Many of these have gone by the wayside, but there are still a number of books I’ve kept, intending to read someday.

On Friday, I considered these. I’m sure they’re great reads. I’ll probably still get to some of them while I’m here at my parents’ house. But what I wanted in that moment was familiarity, comfort. I looked across my old favourites and settled on Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

Now, if you yourself have read Cat’s Cradle you might be wondering what is comforting about a satire about man destroying the world through foolishness and hubris and a religion built on lies. You might be wondering what is comforting about a book that contains this quote:

The Fourteenth Book is entitled, “What can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?”

It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.

This is it: “Nothing.”

More likely, if you yourself have read Cat’s Cradle you know that sometimes the best thing to do when you feel that things are futile or too strange to comprehend is to whisper “busy, busy, busy” to yourself (a quote I have tattooed on my arm, in fact) and marvel at how strange and unpredictable life can be. And laugh.

Re-reading a book that you haven’t read in many years (since 2011 for me, according to Goodreads) is like greeting an old friend after a long time apart. It’s so familiar, and yet I’ve never re-read a book, even for the fourth or fifth or tenth time, and not noticed something new. Sometimes it’s a line or detail I didn’t catch the first time, and sometimes the newness isn’t textual but related to my reading of it. The first time I read Cat’s Cradle I was in high school, and the most recent time before this still nearly a decade ago. Even when the words are the same, the person reading them has changed.

Re-reading Cat’s Cradle took me only a day. I read most of yesterday, with breaks to go for a jog and to watch a couple of Bundesliga matches. It’s a quick read, and despite the deep cynicism of the plot, which (spoiler) ends with the suggestion that the only thing left for humanity to do is to thumb our collective nose at God and die, is imbued with that perfect Vonnegut warmth that balances out the pessimism.

I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.

Lucky me, lucky mud.

I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.

Nice going, God.

Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn’t have.

I feel very unimportant compared to You.

The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and look around.

I got so much, and most mud got so little.

Thank you for the honor!

Maybe you don’t find this comforting. That’s okay. We all have our own old friends. As Bokonon says, “Live by the foma (harmless untruths) that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” Consider picking up a book you first read long ago and reading it as the person you are now. If it’s a true friend, it will be there for you just as it was then.

I will obviously start reading another book today; I can never go more than a day without one in progress. Although I haven’t decided which, I know it will be one I’ve read before. Good Omens, maybe, or The History of Love, or The Secret History, or maybe even Lord of the Rings. All of my old friends are there on my bookshelf, waiting for me.

There is love enough in this world for everybody, if people will just look.


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