The Re-Readers Book Club
In general, I tend not to go in for dualism – black/white, right/wrong, male/female. But sometimes I do wonder if there are really two particular types of people in the world – those who re-read and those who don’t. People on either side of that divide (in my experience) tend to be pretty passionate about their defense for either side. The two main arguments I have heard over the years for not re-reading are: 1. There are too many books out there to read and already not enough time, and 2. But I already know what happens!
I’m a re-reader from way back. Not everything makes my list of re-readable books of course, but there are certain books that I just know I am going to come back around to again eventually. This started even as a young reader. I am pretty sure I re-read The Black Stallion at least three times. I definitely read Anne of Green Gables more than once. And once I discovered Madeline L’Engle, I had found a whole new genre of books to read over and again.
As an adult reader I am a more selective. Jane Austen makes at least an annual comeback. It used to be just Pride and Prejudice that I read every year or two – but more recently I have started to spread out my Austen re-reading to cover all her novels. I have read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of the Lion, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, John Berger’s To the Wedding, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, at least three times each. Books by Elizabeth Gaskell and George Elliot generally get at least one re-read from me, and Ursula LeGuin is an author whose books I know ahead of time I will likely read more than once. I can’t even count the times I’ve re-read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus.
But why? As much as I am a defender of my own reading habits, I do sometimes question my own motives, because there are a heck of a lot of books to read out there.
If I am feeling the need to defend myself in a particularly high-minded sort of way, then my reasoning usually is that as a writer I am re-reading a book in order to get a better sense of what the author was doing. It’s a learning process. The first time I read a book, no matter how much I try to pay attention as an active reader (reading on multiple levels at once – seeing the grammar, the structure, the plot points, the music, the metaphor, the workings of the author’s mind behind the sentences) I usually get lost, carried away by the story at one point or another. A re-read gives me the chance to focus more on the how of a book, to look deeper.
But is that really the only reason I re-read? If I am completely honest then I have to admit that there is something deeply satisfying about re-visiting a long-loved novel or a well-read poem. The familiarity is comforting. I know Pride and Prejudice so well now that sometimes I find myself finishing sentences in my mind before my eyes actually register the words. Is the pleasure that, unlike in life, with a re-read I already know the outcome, I know the twists and turns? Or instead is it that every time I read the book I hope or expect that something might have changed ever so slightly while I wasn’t looking … Perhaps there will be an extra letter from Jane to Elizabeth that I somehow missed before? Maybe Darcy will say something different at Rosings Park?
But sometimes I argue that I never do re-read any book – that I am always reading every book for the first time. Because even if the book itself does not magically reassemble its letters and punctuation over the pages in the middle of the night to become something new – I am new every time I re-read a book. I am not the same reader I was when I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time at thirteen. At forty I am paying a lot more attention to Elizabeth’s character, not trusting the way I used to that she is a perfect heroine. Instead I am scrutinizing her and watching out for her flaws and inconsistencies. Perhaps because I am more willing to see (and forgive) the flaws and inconsistencies in my own character?
I think those well known and well loved pages, over time, become a rubric against which we can measure the changes within ourselves, a way to take the temperature of our lives at that moment, to see where our personalities have shifted, where our priorities have moved, where our hearts may have deepened or closed.
Do you re-read? Why?
The Re-Readers Book Club