One sure sign that a reader has reached old age is that he or she loses interest in new fiction. Seen it all. Been there, done that. It’s then that people nearly always do return to the books they loved when young, hoping for a breath of springtime as the autumn winds blow. And if they aren’t rereading “Treasure Island” or “The Secret Garden”? Then it’s likely to be the Bible, Plato’s dialogues or Montaigne’s essays because these inexhaustible classics address nothing less than the meaning of life, which really means, of course, the meaning of our own lives.
This is the concluding paragraph of Michael Dirda’s review of Vivian Gornick’s book: Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader in the Washington Post. The full article is interesting and I’m sure the referenced book warrants reading (or re-reading).
Is rereading a memory exercise or a refinement of discovery?
Now 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 .. no matter how comforting.
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.
To 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?