December 2015 | Barbara Basbanes Richter

A Holiday Tale for the Gently Mad

On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal's opinion page included a piece by St. John's College president Christopher B. Nelson, urging us to reread beloved books over the holidays, rather than stampede through the latest bestseller. The last book I reread for pleasure was was Patrick Besson's Crusades caper, Saint-Sépulcre! (2006). It was 2009, and I wanted something enjoyable that required scant brainpower when I wasn't attending to the needs of my then-newborn daughter. Unexpectedly, nuances and dark humor overlooked on the first pass gave the book greater depth and dimension, and without the pressure of preparing a lengthy explication de texte afterwards, I reveled in the story for what it was.
Reminded of this little indulgence, I took up Nelson's request Wednesday night and consulted a shelf laden with longtime favorites. Tucked away and practically bent under the weight of the books above it, I retrieved a slim paperback edition of Mademoiselle de Malpeire, a novel written in 1855 by Fanny Reybaud, an author considered one of George Sand's great literary rivals during her lifetime, but whose works have now fallen into obscurity. This book hadn't been opened since graduate school, and the manic, hot-pink highlighting and illegible marginalia are indelible reminders of that moment in my life. But now, without a looming deadline, the story of a proud aristocratic woman who humiliates her family by marrying a peasant (and then murdering him) on the eve of the French Revolution beckoned to be revisited. I dispatched with the introduction (skipped so long ago) and the first chapter before turning in for the night.
The next morning, however, I awoke in a panic, heart in my throat and tears misting. I had dreamed about being back in college. Recently returned from some great adventure, I head to my dorm room, expecting to find the place undisturbed. Instead, the shelves are stripped bare of their contents--not a book in sight. Racing to fellow students' rooms, I discover my books dispersed among them like booty seized in a raid. I grab a dog-eared copy off a shelf and shake it in the face of a sheepish-looking student, demanding why my precious books were cast away. The poor girl answers, "You were gone, and we needed them." In a kind of subconscious shock, I willed myself from that fitful slumber.
Age and good books warp the mind a little.

Will you take up Nelson's challenge to ring in 2016 by reading a long-lost favorite?