The Re-Readable List: The Books That Never Get Old
One key difference between a good book and a great book is that a great book is eternally transportive, no matter how times you return to the well. Here are the books we started reading as kids and haven't put down since.
One key difference between a book that's—how shall we put it?—sort of a one-night stand (nightstand, get it?), and a book that you really want to settle down with is that the latter is eternally transportive, no matter how times you return to the well. With a truly great book, spoilers don't matter. You know exactly how things are going to end, and still, allowing yourself to delve back into that world is exciting and somehow new, or comfortable and exactly what you needed for that particular time. Some books gets better with re-reading, even: The characters become old friends, the plot and pacing unfolds each time in its familiar way yet carries a surprise you didn't notice the initial 10 reads. There are some books like this; not many, but certainly not few, either. It depends on what you're looking for in your re-read, and it's probably different for everyone. Here, from The Atlantic Wire's writers and a few close book-loving friends, are the titles we started reading as kids and haven't put down since.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Y.A. wasn't even a "proper category" when Betty Smith wrote her coming-of-age novel about Francie Nolan, a girl who grows up in a poor family in Williamsburg in the early 1900s, insulated from loneliness and despair by her dreams of becoming a writer. I remember the very first copy I was given, at the age of 11, the same age Francie is in the beginning of the book. I went on to read it so many times the cover fell off and I had to buy a new copy, though I kept the old one because I couldn't bear to part with it. (Not a hoarder!) I must have read it at least 15 times since that first time; it's a book I pull off the shelf nearly annually, returning to it to read a line I remember or revisit a scene. In so doing I inevitably get pulled in and have to finish it anew. For me, this book combines three things that make it perfect: It's the story of a girl growing up who wants to be a writer; it's the story of a girl growing up, facing adversity but no small amount of joys, in New York City; it's a story with a love of books at its core.
My honorable mentions for repeat reads go to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which never, ever gets old despite double-digit readings and its 1967 pub date; Bridge to Terabithia (every time I cry like it's the first time I've seen the words); the Anne of Green Gables books (never sex them up, please); the Betsy-Tacy series (when she's in high school and beyond); and the quirky and hilarious books of The Adrian Mole Diaries. These are my comfort reads. —Jen
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, which I've probably read more than any other book in my life—probably 15 to 20 times. (The whole Narnia series, really, but that one specifically.) I think it's because they work both as fun fantasy adventure stories, but also as a deeper allegory that I never picked up on until I was older. So they really take on a new meaning each time you read them. Even though I'm not religious, I still find the parallels fascinating and am surprised by things I've missed when I re-read them as an adult. —Dashiell Bennett
Summer Sisters and Loch. When I was growing up I fancied myself something of a little adult, so I read lots of "grownup" books by the late, great Michael Crichton and the great, thankfully not late Elmore Leonard. I could probably read Airframe or Maximum Bob over and over again forever, and I did as a kid, but there were also two more distinctly Y.A. books that captured my fancy back then. They were Paul Zindel's Loch and Judy Blume's Summer Sisters. There were Christopher Pike books like Die Softly that I regularly returned to, but those two slightly more literary works were my real touchstones. Loch in my early teens because it was such an adventure -- a modern Loch Ness-style monster is hunted in Lake Champlain -- and because Loch seemed like such a cute boy (I hadn't quite figured things out yet, but there were rumblings). And Summer Sisters, later on, because it was, is, such a masterful outsider look at the thrilling, comfortable banality of wealthy Martha's Vineyard summer living. Both books were such galvanizing glimpses into particular concepts -- the thrill of joining a cute boy on an adventure, the louche and easy joys of money -- that I was just figuring out as an emerging young adult. So I cycled back to them a lot over the years, as reference and reinforcement. Neither are great works of high art, but they are at least just what a teenage gay kid in Boston needed for a few years. —Richard Lawson
The Velveteen Rabbit. Books that I've read over and over? There aren't that many, and it's hard to say what they all have in common. Siddhartha, I think, three times now. Pale Fire, twice. Some of the Grimms' fairy tales, I've probably read 20 times. And then, honestly, the Velveteen Rabbit. I still have the Golden Book edition that I had as a kid. That book makes me cry every time. —Sarah Gerard, McNally Jackson
Harry Potter. Harry turns 11 at the start of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. My classmates and I were slightly younger, about 10 years old, when Scholastic published the book in the United States. But we moved fast, and by the final book's release, we were 18, and Harry just 17. Slight differences in aging speed aside, we grew up alongside Potter, and thus we were smack in the center of the book's intended demographic. Little did anyone know that we would become its most zealous apostles, proselytizing to those outside the target audience until their faith seemed adequate. (Had anyone forseen this, Rowling might have received fewer rejection letters.)
I finished the Sorcerer's Stone at home one evening, and to avoid leaving the delightful world it created, I marched upstairs and declared to my brother that I would read it aloud to him until bedtime each night. This wasn't our tradition, but any excuse to read it again, even an embarrassing display of brotherly affection, would do. Eventually I abandoned pretense, re-reading the first few volumes to myself dozens of times. Before the films, the midnight releases, and the theme parks, this alone fueled Harry's rise: an army of children reaching the last page, and immediately turning back to the first.
Confirming the fears of its censorious critics, my classmates and I treated the books like holy texts, committing passages to memory, reciting arcane facts aloud, and arguing fiercely over the pronunciation of "Hermione." (I insisted it was "Her-mee-own.") For catechism, we spent classes secretly writing out lists of character names in our notebooks, reaching into the hundreds and competing to see who could name a character the others had forgotten. ("Did you get Florean Fortescue?" "Eric. Please.") This game kept us entertained through the entirety of 8th grade English, because these books are populated with hundreds and hundreds of characters, and every one of them, down to the ice cream shop owner, leaves an impression. Together, they created a fantasy world, but one so specific and so densely peopled that to us, it simply had to exist. Over time, the books grew less whimsical, darker, and Harry grew more mature. And alas, so did we. I've read the seventh and final volume just once. Harry had to save the world from Voldemort, but I needed to pack for college. We'll never be Harry's age again, but for a time, he was our peer, and we were his most fanatical advocates. —Eric Randall
I always reread Something Wicked This Way Comes in the fall. There are many, many of Ray Bradbury's books and short stories that have affected in significant ways, but Wicked is the one that holds the greatest power. It's about friendship and parents and children and more than anything about doing the right thing. It also confirmed everything my mother always told me to wary of when it comes to traveling carnivals [grin]! I've read it easily 40 times and I'll never stop returning to it. Also, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, recommended to me by my Irish grandmother who grew up in the Bronx and told me, "Read this—it is my life," and A Wrinkle in Time: The image of Meg Murry standing up to IT is one that never grows old. I have easily reread both of these books 20 times or more. —Colleen Mondor, Y.A. columnist
I first fell in love with Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for the same reason I liked anything as a kid: To impress my older brother. He had given me the book as a birthday gift one year, which to me indicated that this was something "cool" I had to learn to like. So, I read it. I think I liked it. A few years later, I found the book on a shelf and decided to test out if I really liked it. I guess I wasn't making anything up the first time. I've read it every year, once a year, since then. I imagine I liked it for different reasons when I first read it than I do now. Now, I most appreciate Carroll's writing -- the craft of it. But I re-read it all those years for the adventures part -- to remind myself that adventures exist. Alice accepted Wonderland's nonsense. That crazy mixed-up world was just a different crazy mixed-up world from ours. As an adult, at least once a year, I need to fall down that rabbit hole with Alice, lest I start taking this world or myself too seriously. Sometimes I just have to hear it from the Duchess. "'You don't know much,' said the Duchess, 'And that's a fact.'" —Rebecca Greenfield
On what he considers the most enduring of the teen classics—books that are read and re-read and passed down generation to generation, children's book historian and author Leonard Marcus offered the following: The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier. It's tough-minded about school life and moral behavior. It shows a dark side of life that teens know is there. It's a really deep reflection on the psychology of social groups. The writing is taut and muscular and the story is told from multiple perspectives, which is so well suited to teens, who are just learning that life can be a hall of mirrors. Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George (who died recently). It's a compelling coming of age story and wilderness survival tale, but also a story that reflects on the nature of communication and on our relationship to the whole of the natural world. All teens feel alone and so can identify with a young character who has basic decisions about her future to make while also learning to cope with the rigors and dangers of the Arctic wild. And George has an uncanny understanding of wolf psychology, and without sentimentizing things in the least is able to put readers into the mind of the wolves whom Julie comes to know. I think that teens, who are in some ways trapped inside an older sense of themselves and struggling to move beyond it, find in the experience of reading about Julie's bond with the wolves a liberating taste of what it can be like to have a larger, less egocentric sense of self. And Seek, by Paul Fleischman, one of the most innovative contemporary writers for this group (and younger readers too). Seek has to do with a boy who, having been abandoned by his nomadic radio DJ father, tries varous ingenious ways to use short-wave and other kinds of radios to find his father again. The story is told in a kind of sound collage that can be performed by a group as well as read on one's own. It's a book about teen identity and that urge for what psychologists call "autonomy"—taking charge of your own life, which is one of the great themes of the teen years. But it's also about storytelling and ingenuity and the crazyquilt media culture we find ourselves all wrapped up in. —Leonard Marcus, author of the forthcoming Listening for Madeleine
The History Boys. The book I couldn’t stop reading in high school was actually a play. The summer before my junior year I saw The History Boys on Broadway and subsequently got a copy of its text. I would keep it over my desk and periodically take it down to review. I practically had it memorized. I guess it appealed to all of my interests: British boys, literature, needless to say, history. The line I would always revisit? A beautiful speech about the “best moments in reading.” My most re-read book in middle school was probably The Fellowship of the Ring. My dog is named Bilbo. For some reason I remember always coming back to passages in the first one, perhaps that was because it was my first introduction into the world I came to love. I also re-read books like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz. I had these great, beautifully illustrated versions. Also, all the Eloise books, because she’s the coolest, and I was an obnoxious kid in love with New York City, and Shel Silverstein poems, they were so funny, so clever and so trendy. Jane Eyre was so good in high school that I pissed off my friend by giving away parts she hadn't reached yet. In college it was even better with a dose of feminist theory. —Esther Zuckerman
And that's some of the beauty of the re-read. Each time you pick up a book like one of these (and we're sure you have your own, feel free to share), it reminds you of the You who read it the first time, and you can compare that person to the You you are now. The book is the same, but you're different, and so maybe the book is different, too. Did we just blow your minds? Because we sort of did our own. All hail the weird, wonderful, time-traveling, tesseracting power of books.