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It’s said that a book is “a present you can open again and again.” Although I find this to be generally true—I love rereading certain books—it’s not always accurate. I’m an old bag, so in my long life I’ve encountered not one, but two books that I was able to read only once. Grab a cappuccino from the machine on your left and accompany me past the beignet with tangerine frosting to find out which books they are.

The first book has inspired a musical and a film that are much in the public eye right now.  I refer, of course, to Les Misérables, the novel by Victor Hugo. My late father, always eager to introduce me to the world’s great literature, gave me an excerpt from Les Misérables to read when I was eight or nine years old.  This was the part where eight-year-old Cosette is discovered by Jean Valjean.  She shows him a little knife she owns, which she says she uses for cutting flies. When I read this, I thought it a singularly odd, not to mention downright dismal, occupation for a little girl. I could understand why Cosette wished for a doll—most little girls do. When Valjean bought a doll that cost 40 francs and gave it to Cosette, I was very pleased.

When I was a teenager my father gave me another excerpt, “Cosette and Marius,” to read. For reasons best known to himself he doted on this particular section of the novel; he even typed it to include in Landfalls, his own private collection of literary excerpts and poems.

I must have been in my early twenties when I finally read Les Misérables from beginning to end. If one can imagine the agony of an Aztec sacrifice whose still-beating heart has just been ripped out, that would describe the way I felt after I finished reading it.  It was the most wrenching literary experience I’ve ever had.  I knew I would never read the book again because I just can’t put myself through that.

The second book did not have quite the emotional impact of Les Misérables but it was close: if Les Misérables was a 10, The Gadfly would be an 8—at least, in my case it was.  I found out from reading Life magazine that The Gadfly was a novel highly regarded in the Soviet Union, and that plays and films based on the story were very popular.  I’m not sure how I obtained this novel by E. L.Voynich, but I did and again found it a heart-wrenching experience.

The Gadfly can be read free from the Gutenberg project. As to the story, here’s a quote from Wikipedia:

The Gadfly is a novel by Ethel Lilian Voynich, published in 1897 (United States, June; Great Britain, September of the same year), set in 1840s Italy under the dominance of Austria, a time of tumultuous revolt and uprisings. The story centers on the life of the protagonist, Arthur Burton, as a member of the Youth movement, and his antagonist, Padre Montanelli. A thread of a tragic relationship between Arthur and his love Gemma simultaneously runs through the story. It is a story of faith, disillusionment, revolution, romance, and heroism.
I’m glad I read them but I can never read them again. Have you encountered a book that had that effect on you?  Really?  Which one? Tell us about it!  We’ve finished our coffee and wiped the beignet crumbs from our fingers, so now we’re all ears, waiting for you to speak.

Do you ever read a book more than once?

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