But the truth is, I am not a rereader. I never go back, not even for this book which I’ve always named as my all-time favourite book. Until now. Could I continue to say this is my favourite book, when so many reading years have passed and it becomes nothing more than a nostalgic memory of being uplifted by something I can no longer quite define?
So on the first day of the New Year I decided to reread it to see. And felt all the discomfort of why that activity is not for me, glances at the bookshelf seeing all those titles I’ve neglected and not yet read, feeling the fear of this highly praised book no longer living up to my own expectations, the scepticism of being transported a second time when I knew what would pass, the memory of that paragraph about the soporific wasp, trapped in a spider’s web, snipped free by its wise eight-legged captor, a paragraph that I cut and paste and send to appreciative friends, long before the convenience of a blog, wondering if I would now view it with less than the perfection status I had granted it when first encountered.
It is true, there is nothing like gazing at a splendid view, arriving in a new city, country, or place, reading a book or meeting someone for the very first time and experiencing that element of the unknown. It’s the sense of adventure, the openness to being shocked, moved, delighted, surprised, uplifted, disappointed or merely comfortable with a familiar voice telling a new story. It reminds me of a quote (now those snippets I do reread) from one of my travel journals during a three month back-packing sojourn around India, Nepal, Vietnam and Thailand, daily living in the face of the unknown.
“In the face of the unknown, man is adventurous. It is a quality of the unknown to give us a sense of hope and happiness. Man feels robust, exhilarated. Even the apprehension that it arouses is very fulfilling. The new seers saw that man is at his best in the face of the unknown.”
An extract from The Fire From Within by Carlos Castaneda
Reading is unique in that it allows us to rest in the safety of our environment, yet allows us to visit such extraordinary places and/or observe the heights, the depths and the edge of humanity. Primo Levi does it in If This is a Man: The Truce, Vaddey Ratner In the Shadow of the Banyan and Jackie Kay in Red Dust Road to name just a few.
The Industry of Souls takes place on the 80th birthday of Alexander Bayliss, a British citizen arrested for spying in the Soviet Union in the early 1950’s, who after 20 years in a Soviet labour camp, the gulag, settles in the small Russian village of Myshkino, with no inclination to return to his roots.
It was all a part of the process of rehabilitation, of making us come to appreciate that Mother Communism, that buxom, grinning, snag-toothed wench dressed in a pair of dark blue overalls, with a scarf around her head and biceps like Popeye the Sailorman, would provide for us. She was our succour and our saviour as well as our slave-mistress and superintendent.
On this day as he makes his round of the village and his friends, he remembers both his time in the village over the years and significant events of that period in the gulag, including with his friend Kirill, to whose village he returned in fulfilment of a promise. And at the end of today he will receive another visitor, a connection from that past, he long ago left behind.
For now, there is much to offer in the reading present, but having reread this favourite, I have no regrets and I hope to have encouraged a few of you to seek it out, it is well worth sinking into its depths.
It is the industry of the soul, to love and to hate;
To seek after the beautiful and to recognise the ugly,
To honour friends and wreak vengeance upon enemies;
Yet, above all, it is the work of the soul to prove
It can be steadfast in these matters…