From Zadie Smith and Nora Ephron to James Baldwin and Stephen King – here are the Stylist team’s favourite, favourite books to return to time and time again.
While 2021 is proving a stellar year for new fiction, memoirs and more, sometimes you just want to dive back into a familiar universe and reread a favourite book from your past. A new survey by The Reading Agency found that more than one in three readers “find happiness in rereading books”, while more than half of respondents explained that they reread at least one book last year (if ever there was a time to lose yourself in a comfy and familiar tale, a pandemic is probably it).
It’s also an age thing – people aged 18 to 24 are most likely to reread a book (crime, sci-fi and memoirs are the leading genres) while most people pick up a book they’ve read before because they give “comfort, relaxation, escapism, (re)discovery and familiarity”.
Inspired by the survey, we asked the Stylist team to reveal the books they love to return to time and time again. Whether it’s seeing something in a story that you didn’t notice before or because you know the path of a narrative (a welcome experience during uncertain times), here is our pick of the classic reads that just keep giving.
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin – Meena Alexander, features editor
The story I love to revisit is not a happy one – in fact, it makes me cry every time – but it is utterly beautiful. James Baldwin is a masterful writer full stop, but in this 1974 novella he outdoes himself with a tale of childhood friends turned lovers, torn apart by a racist justice system when Fonny is wrongly accused of rape. His pregnant partner, Tish, then sets out to prove his innocence. It’s full of longing, love and fury, and every time I pick it up I’m drawn in by the pure strength of feeling it invokes, usually finishing it in one sitting. I read it twice in the year the film came out starring KiKi Layne and Regina King – once beforehand, so the story was fresh in my mind, and then again after, my own imaginings enhanced by Barry Jenkins’ rich imagery and spot-on casting. I’ve even seen it twice as a theatre adaptation. It’s one story I’ll never get tired of: on screen, on stage and on the page.
One Day by David Nicholls – Moya Crockett, deputy editor, Stylist Loves and contributing women's editor, Stylist.co.uk
One Day tells the story of two people – Emma and Dexter – over the span of two decades, picking up with them on the same day every year. Each time I return to my battered paperback copy, I find something new to relate to. In my early 20s, I empathised with Emma’s grandiose good intentions and Dexter’s desire to find a career that would sound cool shouted into someone’s ear in a bar.
Now, as I hurtle towards 30, the book speaks to me on a different level. I know what it’s like to have a long-term relationship collapse; to worry about your parents’ health; to see your peers get engaged and climb the corporate career ladder when you’re doing neither of those things (and aren’t sure you want to). It’s comfortingly familiar, laugh-out-loud funny and always teaches me something new – like the best kind of old friend.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King – Kayleigh Dray, digital editor-at-large
Every single time I pick up Pet Sematary, I am horrified. And not your usual silly, spine-tingling, giggle-inducing sort of horrified; I’m talking a cold dread so visceral it’s as if something heavy is pressing on my shoulders and pinning me down. Weirdly, though, this isn’t so much a horror story as it is a heart-wrenching tale about grief; you learn to love these characters, because you feel everything they feel in such sharp relief. You wind up hoping they’ll make better choices each and every single time you reread it, and, in the process, you teach yourself a thing or two about loss, too. That’s why, whenever I’m struggling to deal with a particularly painful goodbye, I turn to this book (which, incidentally, is inspired by Stephen King’s own fears of losing someone dear to him). Because it reminds me “what death really is, which is where the pain stops and the good memories begin. Not the end of life but the end of pain.” And that? That is a pretty beautiful message amid all that bleak terror.
Any Human Heart by William Boyd – Naomi May, digital fashion writer
Mine is Any Human Heart by William Boyd, which I just adore. I’m a prolific reader but it’s Boyd’s words in this book that feel most like a warm and familiar hug from a favourite person to me. It’s a heartwarming novel that has everything a person could ever possibly want from a story: love, laughter, tears, joy, heartbreak, all of which float through protagonist Logan Mountstuart’s story in among the ebb and flow of his life’s inevitable successes and failures. I’ve read it while miserable and dealing with teenage heartbreak, I’ve read it while filled with happiness on a beach with a new-found love, and I’ve read it while feeling lost and in need of some guidance. There’s not a person the world over who couldn’t find solace in Boyd’s words.
The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller – Lucy Robson, head of SEO
I don’t tend to reread books, but one I have reread and adore is Madeline Miller’s Song Of Achilles. I can’t remember the last time I was so emotionally involved with a novel or so envious of an author for writing it. Modern retellings of Greek mythology have been having a moment for a while now and I am a big fan of the genre generally, but this one, the story of Achilles’ rise and fall, as told by his best friend and lover, Patroclus, is the best. The characters are masterfully drawn and it’s pacy, fun, fascinating and heartbreaking. I can quote the last line by heart.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith – Amy Abrahams, acting deputy production editor
I first read White Teeth by Zadie Smith while island-hopping in Thailand and my copy, almost 20 years old now, is warped from sea and sand. Perhaps it was being far away from home, but I was immediately hooked on this epic novel of multi-layered London life. The writing is so smart and funny; the characters extraordinarily vivid. It started a lifelong devotion to Zadie Smith, and to this day, I continue to find myself opening up White Teeth, getting lost once more in its perfect and addictive details.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – Amy Davies-Adams, production editor
On days when there is no possibility of taking a walk (if you know, you know), there is really only one book I’d like to be curled up with – Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. OK, so it’s not the most original choice, but the story of Jane making her way in the world, and eventually finding true love with Mr Rochester (but only on her terms), is one that made me fall in love with reading in the first place.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron – Francesca Brown, contributing books editor
I love to reread books. Even when I have a pile of exciting new titles toppling off my bedside table, I sometimes find myself pulled towards familiar old spines. This often happens when I’m tired or feeling low or just need an escape from the noise; it’s the literary equivalent of climbing into bed and hiding under a duvet. Which is why Nora Ephron’s Heartburn is such a go-to: it’s all about surviving life’s lowest blows with humour, dignity and excellently bad behaviour.
Written with effervescent charm and rooted in Ephron’s own experience, food writer Rachel is seven months pregnant with a second child when she discovers her husband has been having an affair. While he attempts to shrug it off and pass it off as a passionate interlude she must accept, Rachel reacts with fury, hurt and, finally, freedom expressed via enduring one liners, food recipes and brilliantly chatty anecdotes. Every time she makes that key lime pie, I feel gutted that my time with Rachel is once again coming to an end.
Images: courtesy of publishers
Francesca Brown is books editor for Stylist magazine and Stylist Loves; she also compiles the Style List on a weekly basis. She is a self-confessed HBO abuser and has a wide selection of grey sweatshirts. Honestly, you just can’t have enough. @franabouttown