On Rereading Old Favorites

Every semester, Alachua county has this fantastic used-book fair. It’s in this giant warehouse and the volunteers from the Friends of the Library organization set up rows and rows, bins and bins, of books for incredibly reduced prices. It’s a book-lover’s dream come true, especially the used-book lover, who loves finding books with little annotations and notes, who dreams of the people who held this volume before and treasured it dearly.

I’ve gone to the Friends of the Library book sale almost every semester I’ve been in Gainesville. This time, since it is my last time, I went all out, and bought a mini-library, enough to fill one full shelf of my bookshelf. My typical haul at these sales are classics that I can’t otherwise find on my Kindle (and let’s be real, I do prefer holding a physical copy of a book, though I can’t deny the convenience and price of e-books) as well as pretty editions of my favorite novels. I once picked up this gorgeous illustrated edition of Wuthering Heights to add to my ever-growing collection of Wuthering Heights editions (Jane Eyre also fits this bill, as well as a bunch of Thomas Hardy books…what can I say? I have a type).

This time, in addition to the dozen classics and lovely hard-copy editions of Sense and Sensibility and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (as well as a DVD of Thomas and the Magic Railroad—hey, they have more than books at these things), I browsed the teen section, ready for that hit of nostalgia. Most of the books in the teen and children’s section of this book sale are a little outdated. So naturally, they fall into the time span of when I was in middle school and high school.

With a little shimmy of joy, I recognized one of my eighth-grade favorites: “Just Listen”, by Sarah Dessen. I plucked it from the row of books and flipped it open. Instantly, I was transported back to middle school, when I finally convinced my mom that I could read teen novels, and I would go to the library and come back with a stack of books—and promptly go through all of them within the week.

Just Listen was not the first Sarah Dessen novel I read, nor was it the last, but it has always been my favorite.

Most Sarah Dessen novels fall into a similar plot structure. I like to call her the Nicholas Sparks of YA literature. Girl struggles with outside problem. Girl meets boy. Boy is different than what she expects. They bond. There’s a cast of kooky friends/relatives. There’s a misunderstanding. Girl loses boy. Girl must overcome her outside problem in order to prove herself and get boy back. There’s a happy ending. Rinse, repeat.

It’s the typical arc of a romantic comedy. It’s tired and true. I could turn this into a criticism of romantic-comedies following similar structures and-slash-or how authors often find their comfort niche (hello John Green and his quirky-but-“”deconstructed”” romantic leads) and don’t leave it.

But, instead, I am going to talk about what this book meant to me as a thirteen-year-old and how it feels to look back.

In this particular book, one of the “outside problems” that the lead heroine has is the fact that she is the victim of an attempted rape. This was the first time I’d read something like that. No one believes Annabel; she is shunned by the rest of the school, her former best friend thinks she’s a slut for trying to hit on her boyfriend. It was the first experience of slut-shaming and victim-blaming. Annabel is a pretty girl, a model, and because of that, no one believes her when she says she didn’t try to seduce her best friend’s boyfriend.

I don’t know what it was about this particular Sarah Dessen novel out of all her novels stuck with me. Maybe I really identified with Annabel and her relationship with her sisters. Maybe I thought that the male lead was particularly swoon-worthy (his name is Owen and he’s obsessed with music…now that I think about it, I’ve never dated someone who wasn’t obsessed with music, so maybe that’s a trend?).

Seeing it on the shelves of the book fair made me nostalgic. I wanted to give it a reread, but at the same time, I was a little scared. What if my heart doesn’t start fluttering when I read those scenes where Owen and Annabel almost kiss? What if the final scene doesn’t hit me as much as it did the first time around?

When revisiting old books, I often find myself hesitating. This is especially true when it comes to genre-books. I’m one of the last people to tout about how classics are the only real form of literature, but I have to say, they have a certain timeless quality. I read Jane Eyre at ten, at fourteen, and then again at seventeen. Each time I learned something different. At ten, I read a love story. At fourteen, I read a redemption. At seventeen, I read about a young woman asserting herself in a male-dominated world.

Sometimes, when I go back and read fantasy or teen books, I find myself realizing that the magic that they held for me as a child has vanished. But then again, a part of it is just how many years have passed. Right now, I think I am safely in the young adult zone that I can look back at my early teen years with a sense of nostalgia instead of a sense of “oh my god why did I think wearing a plaid skirt over jeans was a good look.”

I picked up Just Listen last night, hesitantly. And I was pulled in again. There are weaknesses, I’ll admit, (not sure how I feel about the dialogue or the slips into backstory) but I felt like I was thirteen again—and at the same time, I felt like a twenty-one year old reading this book with new eyes, new perspectives. It was not the same starry-eyed wonder I’d had in my early teens; but that girl was easily brought to light, and I could remember reading under my desk in my math class, because I had to find out what happened next. She is still a part of me, somewhere, and it took a little wriggling and an old book to pull her out.

I think rereading books is a wonderful experience—provided it is the right book. The thing is, you won’t know it’s the right book till you give it a try. The right book will be nostalgic and new all at once—you find a piece of yourself tucked away and let it shine through, while at the same time forging a new memory with the same words.

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