Rereading Reconsidered

Is rereading a memory exercise or a refinement of discovery?

ReadingNow that I have left academia far behind me, I seldom reread a novel. Often it is because I regret having wasted too much time on it already. There are a couple of authors I reread with some regularity: James Joyce and Alain Robbe-Grillet come to mind. But for the most part I would imagine that I reread more books because I have forgotten that I read them before than I reread them on purpose.

Let’s face it: there are too many books waiting to be read to spend time rereading a familiar text.

It’s interesting to contemplate that a reader who rereads favorite books is so often also a reader who cannot abide by “spoilers.” But why would you want to reread a book?

After years of experience in numerous book clubs, both online and down at the local coffee house, I have heard many reasons expressed for rereading books. Probably one of the most common cited is because the reader really enjoyed or identified with the book the first (or ?) time they read it. Note that the connection is almost always a pleasant connection: a mother who has lost a child will seldom return to a book about a child that dies unexpectedly. In fact, most readers with this connection will not even read the book in the first place: we eschew things that are painful.

In this circumstance, the book that gets reread, possibly more than once, is inevitably a feel-good story. By not taking chances with new or unfamiliar books, the reader is more comfortable staying in a familiar comfort zone. Here we would suggest that rereading is a memory exercise.

Some readers reread a book because they didn’t do a good job of reading and understanding the text the first time they read it. The danger here is making the assumption that the book is worth rereading, after all, the second pass might be just as useless. But this can also be a valuable method to crack the mysteries of a more difficult or complex book (again making the assumption it is worth the effort). I reread Joyce’s Ulysses periodically and every time I discover many characteristics of the novel that I might have missed before. This was my experience reading Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: the first time I read it I was young and the text made little sense; when I reread it years later, it was like a new book to me, I understood and appreciated it but something was still missing to allow me to consider it as the great novel I now know it to be; I realized the value and complexity of Tristram Shandy the third time I read it which was followed a few years later by a fourth reading which also was very enjoyable. Now I think I can put Sterne behind me and maybe concentrate on Thomas Mann.

BlakeTo be even more systematic, I knew a reader who had a ordered process for reading all but the simplest entertainments. She would read most novels three times in rapid succession. The first reading to get the overall plot and characters; the second reading to develop the themes; and the third time to slowly appreciate the work in question. She had taken the Evylen Wood Speed Reading courses and could actually complete the first two readings in a single day, if not an hour or two. She told me that the speed reading was invaluable in a class we had together studying William Blake. Now you might cringe at the idea of speed reading poetry but stop and consider Blake’s longer works. Reading Jerusalem or Los was a tough job but if you think of it as a road, it becomes easier if you are somewhat familiar with the direction you are going and can take your time noticing the sights. Me? I often got horribly lost in the poems and had to go back to reorient myself constantly. Blake was very big in the Sixties.

So in these cases, rereading was a refinement of discovery.

Other reasons for rereading tend to be more pedestrian: my Kid is reading a book so I’ll reread it in case I’m asked questions, the book club selection is one I already read but I don’t want to be left out of the discussion; I accidentally read the third book in a trilogy and now I have to reread it after I read the first two titles; I’m teaching a course and have to reread the same books over and over again to assure that I appear smarter than my students; my log cabin is snowed in for the winter and there are only two books on the bookshelf; I’m stranded on a desert island with a Stephen King novel and a grapefruit knife (will a grapefruit knife work to cut my throat?).

Do you reread novels? Will you share your really good reasons for rereading?

6 responses

  1. I rarely reread intentionally. Once in a while I will reread a book I enjoyed as a child to compare my take on it now, as a seasoned reader. Huckleberry Finn is a book I reread this year, and I was surprised to realize I found Mark Twain somewhat tedious. As a child, I so enjoyed him. I reread To Kill a Mockingbird recently because I had completely forgotten the story. This I found to be a good read. Too often, I reread novels by Robin Cook, Michael Palmer, Dorothy Gilman, and John Grisham because I forgot I’ve already read them.

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  2. It’s a bit of a dichotomy but my stock response to students for the best way to study or research a text is to throw away anything like Cliff Notes, stay away from the Library, and reread the primary text carefully and often.

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  3. I reread, at least what I really liked the first time, because there is always more to get from a good read and why move on to something that, while novel, may not be as good. If I have a really good meal I’ll have it again rather than seeking something new that may not be as good.

    A good read isn’t just a beginning and an end, there’s a lot in between as well. Even though knowing the plot and characters is a spoiler there is probably a lot I missed in between. Plus good writing is more than story and characters, it’s the phrasing and construction and pacing and lots of other craft. I rarely read, the first time, so carefully that I catch everything (maybe I should, but I don’t) and so there is still a lot more to suck out of a good read than I got the first time through.

    For me (not a critical appraisal, but just what I like) I find somewhere around 10% of first reads really grab me, 50% or so were worth the time, and a certain fraction wasn’t worth it. With those odds why would something new have a good probability of being more worth reading something old. As much as there is a constant supply of new material tempting me I know a large fraction will be less satisfying than than a reread.

    I also, in some types of literature, miss subtle little things that are always interesting. Obsessed with characters and plot I skip interesting little things. On second or third or fourth I don’t get into page-turner mode and linger more, looking at smaller scale, stuff I missed.

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    • The decline of literature seems to parallel the decline of thorough critical reading. Even the simplest of books will benefit from a rereading but far too many books nowadays can’t even justify the effort required to read it even once.

      But at the same time, it’s good to tickle your entertainment bone with a good mystery or a fun swashbuckler or even a steamy grope-fest (of course some authors are prone to destroy more little gray cells than they ever will stimulate, so please read writers like King or Rice or Hemingway at your own risk).

      To be accurate, I would modify your food analogy by pointing out that the food must be reheated for each meal after the first.

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  4. I didn’t start rereading until I was in my 40s. I figured once read – it’s done- I got it. Ha! When I read The Satanic Verses the first time I had to turn that book over and just start again – I knew I didn’t get what all was in that book – How did those two clowns get from point A to point C? –

    Usually there are a few years between readings so I’ve forgot things but the main reason i reread is to revisit the themes and the language and the details – not the plot. I recently reread The Riders by Tim Winton and I would never have thought to reread that – I didn’t much care for it the first time. But a group chose it and encouraged me , so I took it up. Amazing what I found second time round – knowing “what happened” freed me up to read and consider why it happened, the meaning of the allusions and symbolism, the interwoven themes and how the minute ways they connected to the action. My appreciation increased incredibly (I still don’t really recommend it but there’s more there than a first reading really reveals.)

    I’m currently rereading Joyce’s Dubliners – I’ve read it twice or three times already and I’m not sure what I’ll fine but …

    Like Dagny with few exceptions, I only reread the books which intrigued me for some reason the first time. Pale Fire, most of Pynchon’s novels, Underworld, 100 Years of Solitude, Middlemarch, To the Lighthouse, The Magus, Ulysses and Dubliners, some Faulkner, some Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Dickens, Tristram Shandy, Cormac McCarthy, etc and so on …

    And I’d love to have time to reread more of the books which intrigued me, called to me, the first time – Call It Sleep, The Magic Mountain, Voss, Cloudstreet, etc. alas – time is not on my side. 😦

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  5. I’m like you, Mike. I rarely reread except for my very, very favorites or a group read. Pere Goriot tops the list of my rereads with six or seven times. It could be debated though that it’s only been reread once or twice, since I’ve read at least four different translations. I can never resist a new translation.

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