By Claire-Louise Bennett
216 pp. Vintage. £10.
It’s extremely rare that I reread a book. With all the many, many unread books I have that I very much want to read, how could I ever justify reading one I’ve already read? There’s something admirable and, I find, decidedly upper class about spending one’s time rereading — upper class because it suggests a sort of laissez-faire attitude toward life that’s only possible among those of us free of that most burdensome product of modern capitalism: the full-time job (i.e. labor, generally for an other, that constitutes a sacrifice of eight or more hours of our precious day, five days a week).
Furthermore, since most novels are plot driven, unless you’ve completely forgotten the story, what necessitates rereading at all? Even if it was wonderful the first time around, isn’t there always less pleasure to be derived from experiencing the same thing again the second time, whether that’s a fine novel or a trip to Italy?
And yet, in my relentless quest to be proven wrong, to have my more cynical beliefs dispelled, I’ve done the unthinkable.
The moment I turned the last page of Claire-Louise Bennett’s novel, I immediately turned back to the first page and started again. In fact, I became certain I was going to reread “Checkout 19” somewhere around page 88. For it was on page 88 that I broke that other long held taboo of mine.
I marked something.
To be more precise, I bracketed a paragraph which, a couple of pages later, led to my underlining a phrase. This, 11 pages later, led to my actually writing something down on the margin of the page. And all of this in ink too.
Prior to this, I’d made it a rule — a point of pride, almost — never to leave a mark in a book. Books are too precious to be written in, I’m sure I’d said something like this. You can’t imagine the inner turmoil that followed that first marking. Later, when I underlined something and my pen-holding hand got a bit wobbly, leading me to accidentally cross out a few words, I briefly had the thought that I had ruined it — ruined the book — and would need to purchase a new copy to assuage me.
Then I calmed myself and underlined something else.
It was all so silly. No one was going to read this but me. I wasn’t going to bring this to a used bookstore afterwards (how I loathe when I purchase a used book only to get home and find that someone has left marks in it), so why not mark in it? And I did. Far too frequently.
When I reread “Checkout 19,” I marked up the first 87 pages, which had been left unmarked following my first reading, and added plenty more ink to the other pages too.
“And as I go along reading it again I’ll underline sentences here and there once more, but they won’t be the same sentences,” Bennett writes, “you don’t ever step into the same book twice after all.”
This is a fantastic book, so very difficult to summarize, because it’s almost entirely plotless. It’s about language, firstly, and the reason a word appears on a page often seems to have less to do with its meaning in any given sentence than how it looks in that sentence … or even just on the page itself.
Shades of Knausgaard, of Ernaux, of Calvino, of Sebald, of Ferrante, of Fosse, flash here and there, but what “Checkout 19” really is is remarkably unique — so unique I can’t remember the last time I read something like it. It’s a book you read for the joy of reading, of just reading the words on the page, without really feeling the need to hold onto the thread, to keep count of what all those words ultimately add up to.
I could quote this entire book, I’d have to because I wouldn’t know how, or where, to stop. My pen is out of ink, my own thoughts spilling all over Bennett’s. So it’s really best if I just push this thing towards you — urge you to go on your own little journey to “Checkout 19” and tell you, sincerely, that I envy you the first time.