Manuals for Living: What Our Favorite Novels Teach Us About Ourselves

by Steve Almond
The Literary Life
September/October 2019

If I conducted a brutal assessment of my reading habits—something I am not eager to do—the results would show that I spend an alarming percentage of my time rereading the same book: the 1965 novel Stoner by John Williams.

A first edition of Stoner, published by Viking Press in 1965. (Credit: PBA Galleries / Dana Weise)

As a reader and part-time book critic, I know I should focus my limited attention on the relentless tide of new and exciting work. But the decision to reread Stoner often feels more like a compulsion.

I’m not alone in this pattern. My wife, the novelist Erin Almond, has probably read Little Women as many times as I’ve read Stoner. A friend, the novelist and critic William Giraldi, revisits Wilkie Collins’s novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White on an annual basis.

I suspect every writer could tell a similar story. We return to our favorite novels for three distinct reasons. 

First, for the sheer pleasure of entering into a familiar world, as we did in childhood, when we would delightedly read—or be read—the same story every night.

Second, because particular books serve as our literary mentors, directly influencing our own efforts, as in the case of Zadie Smith, whose 2005 novel, On Beauty, is, by her own enthusiastic declaration, a modern homage to the E. M. Forster classic Howards End.

Finally, and most profoundly, our favorite novels become manuals for living. We read them to be enchanted and inspired, to be transported out of ourselves but, most centrally, to know ourselves more deeply.

What moves you to read and reread the same book ?

Read much more from Mr. Almond at:

Author: Dennis Hickey

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