Rereading in a Pandemic: The Story of a Favorite Book

If you were to ask any library folks, they would tell you that the Favorite-Book-Of All-Time question is an eternal occupational hazard.

Literature

 

Rebecca_Pixabay
Image by Engin Akyurt via Pixabay.

 

Allow me to guess. You have unprecedented time on your hands and, as a self-proclaimed avid reader, you are considering reading what you claim is "your favorite book."

 

If you were to ask any library folks, they would tell you that the Favorite-Book-Of All-Time question is an eternal occupational hazard. However, anytime of the year, friends, book club members, and library and bookstore patrons who usually enjoy seasonal holiday/winter/summer/shelter-in-place reading, may also be asked this quintessential reading question.

 

So, what exactly does that mean – favorite book? And of all time? Does each response require an age attached to it? Or do we never change as readers? Anna Quindlen once commented in the New York Times Book Review about books we outgrow, "and shouldn’t revisit. Let them remain frozen in the amber of adolescence." And then there is Philip Roth who, in PBS American Masters Philip Roth: Unmasked, claimed that he was rereading Turgenev. He said he wanted to read the masters again as an old man. A wave hit me when I heard Roth say that. It reminded me of reading Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, "my favorite book," at twenty years old.

 

Wondering if it stood the test of time, I reread it at forty. It never dawned on me that another twenty years of life had been lived as I once again tried it on for size. So I went to the Evanston Public Library and checked it out.

 

Some forty-plus years ago now, I picked up a nondescript book off a shelf undoubtedly as I was working in some library somewhere shelving books, my go-to hourly job. Deciding that I wanted a reading adventure with no foreknowledge, I perused the shelves. The privacy of library bindings whispered an invitation to an intimate experience. This particular cover was maroon in color and had the one-word title displayed on the spine in gold lettering. Or maybe it was green and the lettering was black. I knew nothing about the book. I flipped to the title page and realized that I had never heard of the author.

 

I turned to the first page and suddenly I was no longer in the library sitting on a book cart. Standing at "the iron gate leading to the drive," I was peering up at Manderley.

 

Manderley. If that single word transports you to another world, you are familiar with Rebecca - the jewel in British author Daphne du Maurier’s crown. If not, you just need to know that, written in 1938 when du Maurier was thirty years old, Rebecca is a masterfully told study in jealousy, wrapped in a cloak of mystery, hung on a hook next to the mackintoshes in the backrooms of the Manderley estate.

 

Rebecca_Movie poster
The novel was adapted for the silver screen by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

 

At twenty, I related to the unnamed, ingénue narrator and saw everything and everyone through her eyes. I wore her character as a cloak against the chill. Oh the fear, the anxiety and insecurities about the ways of the pristine established world! The forces were tsunamic, the obstacles seemed as insurmountable as the tension between this innocent second mistress of the house and the dastardly majordomo Mrs. Danvers. And what of the romantic allure found in the dreamy embrace of Maximilian de Winter?

 

At forty, I was working as a high school librarian and thought it behooved me to actually reread the book that I was touting as my FBOAT, since it was half a lifetime ago that I first read it and claimed it for all time. I straight away found myself aghast and dismayed with my twenty-year-old self. How had I ever related to that sniveling, whiny, waif of a wife? Life through her eyes was the universe conspiring to ridicule and demean her at every rotation of the earth.

 

She was consumed with fear without any sense of self-worth to counter her disillusionment at the role of being the second Mrs. de Winter. The grave perpetual insult of not even having a name belabors the affronts suffered, and yet the respectable and accomplished Maxim de Winter seems to be earnest in his affections for his young wife number two.

 

At this more adult reading of the text, how does that emotion reflect on his tastes and judge of character? Perhaps less is thought of him. Yes, really, could he not have done better the second time around? Even his wife, in all her insecurities, repeatedly compels him to defend his choice of her to follow the esteemed former lady of the estate, Rebecca, whose death is shrouded in mystery. 

 

Alas at sixty, now a professor and director of graduate programs, I turn around and the confluence of another twenty years of a life well lived in libraries, Anna Quindlen’s NYT Book Review interview, and Philip Roth’s PBS documentary, impel a third reading.

 

Indulge me or not, but consider that the adage "this, too, shall pass" has a heavy hand in the disillusionment of raw emotional turmoil and romantic drama for mature readers.

 

The stately beauty of Manderley, the beech trees winding through the lush grounds and the strong relations between adult siblings combine to assuage Rebecca's angst-ridden heroine and her tenuous grasp on married life. With the perspective of age, even her foil, Mrs. Danvers, seems less absolutely evil as maturity elicits compassion for the sudden loss of her beloved Rebecca, and I understand the resolve to make life miserable for her successor.

 

My last, or perhaps simply my most recent, reading of Rebecca satisfies in a completely different manner than the first evocative instance in my youth. I appreciate the textured beauty of the universe du Maurier creates, the supportive connection that Maxim has with his sister, and the unfolding of the mystery of Rebecca’s demise. But the cloying anxiety of the second Mrs. de Winter is overwhelming, and frankly the reminder of my empathy for her frailty of character makes me question my young self.

 

Nevertheless, this text was center stage as I developed my adult reading life and no doubt that life enriched the one I have lived. As I try to be with myself, I muster compassion for my former reader self and forgive my trespasses. And so, I thoughtfully reveal, Rebecca was my favorite book of all time, for a time. Just some food for thought in case you are asked the question during this, our inaugural enduring reading season.

 

 

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Literature, Books, Library, Reading