I read a couple of books each week. After all, my job at Nashville’s great independent bookstore, Parnassus, is “book enthusiast at large.” Like a lot of booksellers, I pull almost exclusively from a teetering stack of advance reader copies, titles that won’t be out yet for months, but which have come to my attention via enthusiastic editors or about which I’ve heard some tidbit that piqued my interest. I almost never re-read a book; there just isn’t time to go back when it’s my job to read ahead. Plus, once I’ve lived in a story—walked its landscape and put myself into the heads of its characters—I’ve absorbed it. It’s in me. I don’t need to experience it again. In fact, if I really loved it, I don’t want to try to experience it again. What if it doesn’t hold up? I’d rather preserve that perfect first-read feeling.
But every now and then, for one reason or another, I make an exception. Here are a few of those special books I return to again and again over time. (I’m pleased to report none of them have let me down on the re-read.)
This eerie speculative fiction about a boarding school that’s not really a boarding school took my breath away the first time I read it. Experiencing this deeply affecting story is like waking up during surgery and feeling the scalpel against some inner organ; it hurts, but it’s also fascinating to feel something in a place you even didn’t know you could feel. Re-read this masterpiece by a Nobel Prize winner to remind yourself what profound depths the human imagination can reach.
The students of Hailsham are special. That’s what they’ve been told. Isolated from the outside world, they’re raised from birth as “donors,” their bodily organs harvested for wealthy patrons. But this is no schlocky sci-fi; it’s a gently observed drama. Existential, painful, and unforgettable, NEVER LET ME GO explores how even the most disenfranchised and doomed characters find meaning, hope, and love, even as they resign themselves to a life cut horribly short.
Crazy like: You’d be too.
Best crazy moment: The whole damn book.
Nora Ephron’s dry wit set the tone for countless imitators, which is all fun and good, but it’s important to return to the real thing sometimes. Her fiction stands the test of re-reading just as wonderfully as her nonfiction, and her autobiographical novel, HEARTBURN, feels effortlessly readable because Ephron wielded her voice, her truth, and her art with such skill and control. It’s entertainment and a writing lesson all at once!
David Sedaris is the master of layering tiny details and hilarious turns of phrase into his true tales, which means no matter how often you read them, something new will always catch your eye. How many times would you have to read one of his collections before there’s nothing left to discover? I’ve yet to find out. (I’ve already read his new one, CALYPSO, twice—and it amazed me both times.)
When a bedbug scare leads to a mass burning of the prison library’s books, the inmates memorialize the lost tomes. These include, in Poussey’s words, “All the David Sedarises.” His newest laugh-out-loud funny book is sure to be missed.
David Rakoff is often mentioned in the same breath as David Sedaris, but his style was a little less madcap, a little more measured in its mix of pathos with humor. His inimitable voice comes through in every one of his essays, whether he’s gleefully skewering some cultural trend or divulging his own fears about his future. Maybe that’s why I find myself coming back to his books—because he’s gone, and there’s no other way to get more of his voice. (Speaking of his voice: This one makes for an entrancing listen as an audiobook.)
Joan Didion’s introspective memoir of the year after her husband died isn’t just sad; it’s helpful. She puts the most difficult emotions into plain language, which sounds like it would be painful to read, but somehow, it’s also soothing, even uplifting. I’ve loved and lost this book about love and loss a few times—meaning I’ve not just re-read it, but re-bought it.
“Life changes fast.”
This hysterical illustrated memoir shines a light on the most absurd and meaningful parts of the human experience, through stories about everything from growing up to training a dog to being diagnosed with depression. Open it to any page, and you’ll be laughing out loud in under a minute, whether it’s your first read or your sixth.
“I have read very few books in my life that compelled me to laugh so loudly in public that it made the people around me visibly uncomfortable. Allie Brosh’s HYPERBOLE AND A HALF is one of them.”