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The Re-Reading Project: The Book I Couldn’t Re-Read

This time last year, I had a small sheet of paper taped into the back of my journal with a list of twelve books jotted out. My plan was to re-read one of these twelve books each month in 2014 and write about the experience, what I remembered from my original readings and what I discovered reading them now. I’d first read almost all of these books before I was 16 (when I moved to Louisiana) and while I’d read most of them only one time, I counted them all as favorite, influential books.

In January, I quickly fell in love with the project and read 9 kids’ books. I was in the middle of moving for the second time in six months, so I think I was a little nostalgic for childhood and a semblance of stability. It was a lot of fun, in the middle of chaos.

February found me in my new home and brought me company in the project: my friend Maurice re-read an influential book of his own and wrote a guest post. I re-read a Japanese fantasy translated into English.

March brought a guest post from my sister Aimee, re-reading an author she introduced me to and who I would re-read later in the year, as well as a post of my own about re-reading a speculative anthropological romance novel.

As April opened, I re-read a gothic romance while on a train to visit my new love and my friend Missy re-read a philosophical horror novel I’d never read by an author who also wrote a series of books I almost re-read this year.

In May, I confessed to my history as a reader of romance novels and I re-read my first “real” romance novel, by a writer I’ve never read again, and then re-read a romance by a writer whose mysteries I still read, conflicted though I may be about enjoying them.

June saw me at my love’s house, re-reading a young adult trilogy by an author who disappeared for ten years and then became wildly popular again as two of her series were made into t.v. shows. My friend Mary re-read folk tales right around the same time her book of poetry inspired by folk tales was published.

July brought me heartache, but I pushed on and re-read a horror novel by the author my sister introduced me to at age ten and my friend Noel re-read another horror novel by a more famous horror novelist.

August took me back to school, re-reading three books I was assigned as a student, one of which I hated and one of which I loved, and I got on the road for the Residency Road Trip. Blogger Lisa re-read another canonical tome that impacted her.

September was an oasis of calm, of thinking, reading and writing and I re-read a speculative science thriller and my friend James re-read a magical realistic family saga by an author who died this year.

In October, I returned to “real life” and New Orleans, wrapping up the Residency Road Trip and settling back in. I struggled to re-read the book I’d originally scheduled for October and at the last minute changed it to a magical realistic romantic tale as my Peauxdunque cohort Emily re-read a romantic Civil War saga.

During November, I conducted my own private NaNoWriMo and happily re-read an adventure tale based on an ancient Iraqi folktale while another Peauxdunque cohort, Joi, re-read a gothic horror novel about suburbia and family (not written by Gillian Flynn).

December finds me in a familiar place – swimming through chaos and uncertainty. My friend Rachel re-read a satirical science fiction novel and I struggled, once more, to re-read the book I’d originally scheduled for October: a fantasy novel published in 1992 by an author who has switched to writing mysteries. (If you can guess what the book is from that description, let me know.) I’ve always remembered this book as one of my favorites, though I might’ve only read it once (it’s recorded in 1996, when I was 14, but I find it hard to believe I only read it one time). I was excited to re-read this book all year long – it was one of the first titles that went on my list. Several times, as I read other books, I thought of this book. There’s an artist protagonist, so I thought it would be perfect after living with an artist for a month at the residency. But, as I dove in, the book never really caught my attention. I was fifty pages in when I started again this month, so I had a head start and I still couldn’t get invested. It finally got a bit more interesting when I passed the 100 page mark last night, but I’m a firm believer that there is a time for every book in a person’s life. And I finally had to admit that I’m just not meant to re-read this book this year. Maybe next year.

This year, I re-read and wrote about 21 books (rather than the 12 I’d originally intended) and my friends wrote 10 fabulous guest essays about books they re-read. Interesting stats: of the ten guests, eight are women and two are men. Even more interesting: I’ve only read 2.5 of the 10 books my guests re-read (the .5 is for Mary’s folk takes because while I didn’t read her edition, I’ve probably read most of the stories), though I have started reading, but never finished, half of them. I didn’t assign any of the titles my guests picked, though we did discuss them in advance and I sometimes scheduled them according to what I was re-reading (Noel in July most notably).

It turns out that the Re-Reading Project is going to continue, with a new slate of books and in a different form. Let me know if you’re interested in re-reading and writing about your experience and stay tuned. In the meantime, you can use this post as an index (or scavenger hunt, if you prefer) for all of the essays for the 2014 Re-Reading Project. 

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The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: A Room with a View

“The Signora had no business to do it,” said Miss Bartlett, “no business at all. She promised us south rooms with a view close together, instead of which here are north rooms, looking into a courtyard, and a long way apart. Oh, Lucy!”

“And a Cockney, besides!” said Lucy, who had been further saddened by the Signora’s unexpected accent. “It might be London.”  She looked at the two rows of English people who were sitting at the table; at the row of white bottles of water and red bottles of wine that ran between the English people; at the portraits of the late Queen and the late Poet Laureate that hung behind the English people, heavily framed; at the notice of the English Church that was the only other decoration of the wall. “Charlotte, don’t you feel, too, that we might be in London? I can hardly believe that all kinds of other things are just outside.”

Thus begins E.M. Forster’s most popular novel, something I never knew when I picked it up at random when I was seventeen years old, newly graduated from high school, and very dramatic about attending a college I hated. At the time I picked it up, A Room With a View seemed like a message from God. The back cover’s description alone was enough to prove to me that this book was sent to me by a higher power to help me through this extremely trying period of my life:

“A young girl, Lucy Honeychurch, and her chaperon visit a tempestuous, passionate Italy…Soon Lucy finds herself bound to an obviously ‘unsuitable’ man, the melancholic George Emerson, whose improper advances she dare not publicize.”

Two things stood out to my childish mind: that “Lucy” was one of my many nicknames, and that the college I’d wanted to attend was Emerson College in Boston. It seemed like a weird coincidence and, believing in book magic, I bought the novel, thinking I knew what to expect. And to be honest, the book confused me a bit. I was unused to the “comedy of manners” genre—I wanted a love story. I got one, but it was far more complex than I thought; it wasn’t indulging my selfish teenage angst. But I read into it what I wanted and loved it just the same.

I read about the young Lucy Honeychurch, a passionate young girl with progressive ideals who is constantly manipulated by her domineering family and by societal expectations. Lucy finds her principles and passion ebbing away the more she conforms. At the center of her confusion are two men: the “unsuitable” George Emerson and her wealthy fiancé, Cecil Vyse. George Emerson is the brooding, passionate young man plagued by philosophical conundrums; the only thing he is certain of is his love for Lucy. Cecil Vyse, on the other hand, is a stodgy, stuffy, upper class snob who calls Lucy his “Leonardo” and is determined to make his middle-class sweetheart “one of us.” I cheered at the satisfyingly romantic ending and felt my teenage desire for a love story fulfilled.

Fast forward to 2014, when I decided to slide A Room With a View off my shelf for a long-overdue re-read. By now, the text had attained holy status in my mind. I knew I loved Lucy, knew I was in love with George Emerson, but I never quite grasped how little I understood when I first read the book. I opened the book once again with elation, with expectation. And I’m so so grateful that I did.

“It isn’t possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.”

This advice appears, from George Emerson’s wise father, toward the end of the novel. Lucy has broken off her engagement to the insufferable Cecil Vyse in the name of freedom, lying to everyone in her life about secretly loving George Emerson. Lucy is determined to quash her unsuitable love and flee from her feelings. When she meets George’s father, he is wise and kind enough to recognize her internal “muddle,” as he calls it: the unforgivable action of denying one’s feelings in favor of societal conventions. To achieve any kind of happiness and fulfillment, Lucy must say yes to Love, to Truth, to Joy. The “eternal Yes,” as the elder Mr. Emerson calls it.

This year, I found myself in a muddle similar to Lucy’s. I deceived myself just like Lucy does when she convinces herself she’s in love with the intolerable Cecil Vyse. I found myself believing I was in love because it was convenient. I wanted love so badly I thought I had found it.  I was too sentimental to realize the complexity of the emotions I mistook for love. I didn’t recognize that mixed in with infatuation was selfishness, the desire for love, and the desire for acceptance. I was in a muddle.

As I re-read A Room With a View, Mr. Emerson’s words smacked me like a strong wind against my face. Like Lucy, the scales fell from my eyes and I saw the whole of everything clearly. I read about Love, about the eternal Yes, and most important, about Truth. “Truth counts,” the elder Emerson  said. Truth counts. And the truth was that I loved the idea of love more than I thought I’d loved this person. I had strong feelings, but love was not the name of them. The truth was that I’d spent months calling something love that wasn’t, sacrificing my own happiness and barring me from finding something real.

Lucy found love in George Emerson, and reading the book again taught me the meaning of Truth and of being truthful to oneself. It made me see, very clearly, the machinations and manipulation of society, that it’s very easy to settle for something you think you want, because it’s hard holding out for something infinitely better.

“When I think what life is, and how seldom love is answered by love—Marry him; it is one of the moments for which the world was made.”

This year, during a visit to a secondhand bookstore, I stumbled upon a vintage edition of A Room With a View, embossed with a floral design and featuring pretty gold lettering on the spine. I bought A Room with a View x2it, and knew it was time to re-read. I love A Room With a View even more now than I did five years ago, and I know that I’ll return to it again and again.


***Lisa with A Room with a View

Lisa Loparo is a freelance writer and blogger living near New York City. She likes to eat chocolate and look at cat photos on the Internet. At her blog, The Most Happy, and on Twitter, she focuses on beauty and fashion, books, and culture.

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