Posted May 27, 2013 by in Bibliotherapy

What to read? (Part 10) Rereading

Dorothea Lange's photograph (for the War Relocation Authority) of Dave Tatsuno rereading his University of California notes before evacuation in 1936.

Dorothea Lange’s photograph (for the War Relocation Authority) of Dave Tatsuno rereading his University of California notes before evacuation in 1936.

There is a particular art and pleasure to rereading – a fact agreed upon by many of the authors and critics I’ve consulted recently. Dip into the books-about-books genre and you’ll discover that authors almost invariably exhort their readers to discover the joys of reading old favorites again (and again).


In my experience

Rereading, I regret to admit, is something I’ve not been very good at doing as an adult. As a child I obsessively returned to my favorite series, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, but once I hit college I can only remember rereading a few books, and then only when it was required for classes. That old chestnut, “too many books, too little time,” is all too true of my approach; I am driven by a compulsion to always be reading something new, something that counts toward a book list that will still never scratch the surface of all the books published in one year, let alone ever. Going back to a book I’ve already read feels like regression, or stalling, and I rarely feel that I learn anything new from the experience.

Public domain {PD-US}

Public domain {PD-US}

Charles Dickens has been my favorite author ever since I first devoured David Copperfield at the age of fourteen. All it took was a peek at that unforgettable first line in the battered, secondhand paperback I bought at a sidewalk sale – “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show” – and I was hooked.

I’ve now read David Copperfield, as well as Great Expectations and Bleak House, twice, and I can say that the second reading invariably proved to be a disappointment. It was not so much that I already knew what would happen – since plot, although important, is not what I read Dickens for; I read him more for the humor, the voice, and the language – as that I couldn’t fully give myself over to the novels the way I had during my first reading. The second time around I was less able to suspend my disbelief about this fictional world, and less willing to wholeheartedly accept the characters with all their foibles or the storyline with all its improbabilities and vicissitudes. I found I was more jaded and cynical, and less patient with my beloved Dickens’s wordiness and posturing. These experiences have made me fear that a repeat reading will spoil a book for me and thus have soured me against rereading.


Expert opinion

However, almost to a (wo)man, authors swear by the art of rereading. There are many good reasons for returning to tried and true books, such as comfort, nostalgia, engaging with new ideas, and encountering a new version of the self. In fact, both Italo Calvino and Harold Bloom define a classic as a book that bears almost infinite re-readings. Indeed, several of Calvino’s definitions of a classic (from his excellent essay “Why Read the Classics?”) relate to a book’s ability to stand up to multiple readings:

1. “The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading…’”

4. “A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.”

6. “A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.”

Photo credit: Rdsmith4

Photo credit: Rdsmith4

Bloom echoes Calvino in The Western Canon, in which he asserts that “One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid: unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify.” Vladimir Nabokov went so far as to declare (in Lectures on Literature) that “one cannot read a book; one can only reread it” – in other words, a reader never goes into any meeting blind, but always brings along cultural baggage, striving to see with unveiled eyes the work that has so often been described or discussed and so cannot be approached without preconceived notions.

Yet, at each fresh encounter, a classic will disclose more of its accrued cultural wisdom; as Calvino proceeds to explain, “What counts for us in a work of literature is the possibility of being able to continue to unpeel it like a never-ending artichoke, discovering more and more new dimensions in reading” (in another essay from Why Read the Classics?). A classic is a book with which you can have an ongoing relationship: it’s a monogamous commitment rather than a one-night stand; it’s an old friend, not just a passing acquaintance. As French author François Mauriac intoned, “‘Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are’ is true enough, but I’d know you better if you told me what you reread.” Your personal library of beloved and reread classics reveals much more about you than you might think.


Past selves

A return to a much-thumbed book may be, in some mysterious way, like a return to the earlier version of yourself who first picked it up years ago. In Patricia Meyer Spacks’s pleasant ode On Rereading, she admits that one goal of rereading is “remembering our past selves.” David Denby agrees, in Great Books, that “rereading is often a shock, an encounter with an earlier self that has been revised.” Both the classic work and the self prove to be changeable, as Ali Smith proposes in her collection of literary essays, Artful:

“Great books are adaptable; they alter with us as we alter in life, they renew themselves as we change and re-read them at different times in our lives. You can’t step into the same story twice – or maybe it’s that stories, books, art can’t step into the same person twice, maybe it’s that they allow for our mutability, are ready for us at all times.”

Each of these writers suggests that a reread book might not just hold remnants of the past self who first loved it, but also that the book itself might change with the reader. In a sense, you grow up alongside the book.


A source of comfort

As well as nostalgia, reunions with well-loved classics might evoke feelings of consolation. Larry McMurtry describes his relationship with favorite books thus: “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security. How nice to be able to return to what won’t change.” Are one’s personal classics truly as immutable and ageless as McMurtry hopes? Or is this a form of denial? Perhaps there is false comfort in the belief that books remain the same despite the overwhelming changes of history and personal circumstance. Nevertheless, Spacks concurs that returning to familiar works provides both “reassurance” and a “refuge,” citing Verlyn Klinkenborg’s assertion that “the books he repeatedly rereads provide not a canon but…a certain kind of emotional satisfaction.”

Photo credit: Abhi Sharma

Photo credit: Abhi Sharma

In the pane “In his Good Books,” from Very Posy (1982), a selection of her comics for the Guardian newspaper (collected in Mrs. Weber’s Omnibus), Posy Simmonds has one of her insufferable academic characters wax lyrical about the books he consistently revisits: “Yes, there are some books one returns to again and again, aren’t there? One sort of recuperates with them, doesn’t one…completely recharges the batteries!…an infallible rejuvenator…what about you? Do you have a literary life raft?” He has been referring to such ludicrously high-brow choices as French philosopher Gaston Bachelard and German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but his question prompts protagonist Wendy Weber to give her own paean to the works of Beatrix Potter – proof that the sort of classics one finds reassuring will always be a personal, subjective choice. Spacks confirms that a reader’s judgment can never be objective: “Is reading (or, for that matter, writing) ever dispassionate? Should it be? One might rather ask, can it be? It can’t.”


Let down

How about when a repeat reading of a book doesn’t live up to your high expectations? It’s quite possible that upon rereading you will find – instead of nostalgic delight, comfort, or new insight – nothing but disenchantment. In spite of her impassioned advocacy of rereading, Spacks concedes that there are “multiple unpleasures [to] a book that fails to survive the second reading.” The problem might be, simply, that a book isn’t good enough to stand up to rereading; as Greenbelt’s literature programmer and I found out when reviewing Richard North Patterson’s Exile for the festival Big Read in 2011 (which I described in last week’s article), a situational thriller doesn’t really work the second time around – once you know how the plot resolves itself, there’s not much left to admire.

"Lepidoptera Canetti (the stilled crowd of the dead)" by Kevin Slavin.

“Lepidoptera Canetti (the stilled crowd of the dead)” by Kevin Slavin.

The same disillusionment can occur even when returning to an undeniable classic, as David Shields recounts in How Literature Saved My Life. This is what he has to say about his repeat reading of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:

“I read it more than thirty years ago and I find that I have trouble rereading it now. Seems sad—do I still love it, did I ever love it? I know I did. Has my aesthetic changed that much? If so, why? Does one resist that alteration? I think not. The book changed me, still defines me in some strange way.”

Perhaps, as Smith insists in her echo of Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535-475 BCE), “You can’t step into the same story twice” – a book once loved is forever lost to you when you have moved beyond the person you were when you first loved it. This is a sad prospect, especially for those who like to think of all the books they’ve read as a kind of cumulative internal library, a source of wisdom, pleasure, and solace. Maybe it’s best for such books to remain on the shelf and in the memory, so that you can return to them in your mind and experience their nostalgic glow without ruining them through an actual rereading.


How about you?

Photo credit: T. Voekler

Photo credit: T. Voekler

Are you a devoted re-reader? Or do you often find yourself let down when you try to recreate the experience of reading a beloved personal classic?

Throughout this series I have tried not to be too prescriptive about what you should be reading. In the end, which books you read rapturously and which you reject is a highly personal decision. Every reader has to decide for him- or herself what attitude to take towards classics, bestsellers, and book clubs, what position to adopt in the face of the mountain of books still unread, whether to seek catharsis or readability, and what justification to give for his or her personal literary taste, beyond an easy like/don’t like. My initial question of “what to read?” is indeed a deceptively simple one.

And so, with this bibliotherapy series, aided by my literary gurus – Calvino, Smith, and Bloom, plus Roland Barthes, Nick Hornby, Nancy Pearl, and especially Arnold Bennett – I hope I’ve encouraged you to think a bit more searchingly about what you read and why, and perhaps left you with a craving to pick up something new.

All your thoughts about rereading, or about this “What to read?” series in general, are welcome in the comments area below.

What to read? (Part 10) Rereading 5.00/5 (100.00%) 1 vote

Rebecca Foster

An American transplant to Reading, England – a fitting place for a fiendish bibliophile. After six years as a library assistant, I am recklessly embarking on a freelance writing career. I review books for Kirkus Indie, The Bookbag, For Books' Sake, We Love This Book, and Bookmarks magazine, and also volunteer with Greenbelt Festival's literature program. I read everything from theology to popular science, but some favorite genres are literary fiction, biography and memoir, historical fiction, graphic novels, and nature writing. Check out all my articles.