For reasons that’ll be clear in a few days, I’ve been spending some time thinking about my rereading habits—or lack thereof. If I’m not reading something I’m reviewing (which is how I spend about half my reading time), I tend to reach for something brand-new to me. Seems like the responsible thing to do. Better I consume the mediocre-but-buzzed-about new novel I’m plodding through now than take another pass at, oh, Light in August. At least the new novel is teaching me something, even if what it’s mostly teaching me is what sort of things get buzz these days; going back to William Faulkner means actively closing myself off from something new, and (worse) it also means I run the risk of coming away from the book less impressed than I was with it at 25.

I’m not alone in feeling this particular low-level anxiety. David Gates summed up the rereader’s mindset pretty well last year in Newsweek. But his enthusiasm for rereading largely involves an eagerness to experience particular characters again, an attitude I find a little baffling—it sounds a little too much like you’re all excited about hanging out with your imaginary friend. Rereading mainly seems appealing to me if it offers some kind of window into a writer’s process. About a year and a half ago I spent some time reading or rereading George Pelecanos‘ novels with the intention of locating some of his tics when it comes to writing about Washington, D.C.. The piece is a little tongue-in-cheek, and it’s probably not the way he’d prefer his books be read, but it didn’t make me any less of a fan of his; he’s not a worse writer for having a few habits, and I wasn’t worse off for discovering a few of them.

I don’t tend to throw questions directly to readers—I don’t have the “online community manager” gene, and I fear that such appeals come off as a little needy and manipulative. But there’s a first time for everything, and seeing as I’m not sure when I’ll have another opportunity to post at length, now is as good a time as any to invite the commentariat to weigh in. What prompts you to reread, and what do you tend to reach for when you do?

26 thoughts on “Rereading

  1. I don’t re-read often, simply because there are so many books I haven’t read yet, but usually when I do, it’s something I really enjoyed the first time around. And personally, I think the prospect of seeing if you still think a book is as good the second time around as you thought it was the first is half the fun. You don’t know nearly as much about a book the first time you read it as you do the second.

  2. I prefer re-reading to reading for a couple of reasons. One is that a book, especially a great book, gets better the more you read it. There are a lot of books you just can’t get to the bottom of. “Absalom, Absalom!” for example, or “Moby-Dick.”

    You notice more, you see fresh levels of meaning, you see connections and links you didn’t see before. Or maybe you did see them before, but you forgot them — which leads to my second reason. The older I get, the more I forget. There are a lot of books I’ve read whose plots I’ve all but forgotten, but which I remembered liking for some reason. In those cases, it’s like reading a new book that comes highly recommended by someone I trust: me. Of course, the younger me might have found the book more appealing than the older me, and the reverse is true, too, which is why I’ll occasionally make another stab at a book I hated in my youth.

    Interesting you should bring up Gates. He says in the introduction to Dickens’ massive “Little Dorritt” that he’s read the book some 30 times . I’m not sure if that’s admirable or totally insane.

  3. I don’t reread often because there are so many books I haven’t had. I was a late blooming reader.

    I have to really love a book or I think the book is important to revisit because the first time I read it I didn’t understand or I wasn’t mentally there.

  4. Like Hank, I don’t go out of my way to reread usually because there’s so much out there I’ve never read, and want to.

    When I do, it’s often because something I’m writing has resonances with something I’ve read, or is even directly inspired by it. Then I go back for further inspiration; to make sure I’m remembering it right; and to remind myself of nuances in the text that I might have forgotten, that could inform my work.

    I also have reread books recently because they were assigned in class, and I find I can’t discuss or write an intelligent paper on a book I haven’t read in fifteen years.

    I have to admit, I’ve found both kinds of experiences illuminating. Reading Wuthering Heights at thirteen and then at thirty gave me two very different impressions, though I loved the book both times. Same (to a lesser degree) with Goethe at 19 and at 27.

  5. I reread a lot, for a lot of reasons, but primarily because at least a handful of books are, for me, inexhaustible–I find something new in them every time. Sometimes it’s technical, a trick or method I’ve previously not noticed because I was distracted by plot or character. Sometimes it’s insight into people via a character who, on the first reading was in the background, but on a second reading, freed from the worries of plot, I’ve finally seen clearly.

    Primarily, though, I think it has to do with me being a different person every time I encounter a book anew. I just read War and Peace for the third time in fifteen years, and it’s been a wildly different experience every time. I reread my favorite book, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time every couple of years, and each time through, I respond to different aspects, in large part because this novel that spans the lifetime of a whole generation shows me new things each time about where I am in life.

    This means I miss a lot, especially a lot of contemporary fiction, but I can’t quite imagine it any other way–I honestly can’t imagine reading without rereading

  6. Dear Sir,

    I reread what fascinated me in the first place. Usually it has to be a work with masterful control over some aspect of the art of the novel–plot, character, language. But more often than not, it is the language that draws me back again and again.

    As a result, I find myself rereading _Ulysses_ (and almost all of prose Joyce), Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, “Four Quartets,” Faulkner (almost everything), Chaucer, Shakespeare, Fielding, and a few others.

    I never tire of rereading some works because they are always new and surprising. What I thought I had encompassed I had barely remarked upon. I think again and again of phrases, “The ineluctable modality of the visible,” “the leaden circles,” “My mother is a fish.”

    Hope this gives one reason for rereading–to glory in perfect language perfectly arrayed.



  7. I really don’t feel equipped to understand a text, let alone talk about it, until I begin the rereading process. The first read, for me, is always about a sort of surface experience of the text, and a sort of unpacking the mysteries of the text – I’m trying to orient myself vis-a-vis the characters, the setting, the cultural/social context, literary theory, the narrative language, etc. And during the first reading, I don’t quite know how the surface of the text will spread out. Once I finish, I feel like I understand the basic, flat contours of the text, and rereading allows me to dig deeper, to not just wonder “what’s happening” or “what’s going to happen,” but to think more about how the language is functioning. I sometimes think to myself that the only real reading is rereading.

    I love rereading Beckett’s Molloy, Goethe’s Faust, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, The Odyssey, Oedipus the King, King Lear — especially those texts that are a bit (or quite) unwieldy at first, really open up during upon a second or third reading.

    Also, rereading often reveals new meanings in the text. If you’re looking to read something new, rereading usually gives me that newness.

  8. I find myself rereading more of late — in part, because I have made recent efforts to slow down (though not curtail) my literary activities, but also because I want to see if an author is good enough to swindle me into the glorious con a second time. The perspective that Gates seeks is always a draw, no matter if it’s the first, third, or fifth time plunging into a tome. But I’m more interested in whether the voice is “true” or authentic enough to win me over repeatedly. That may very well be a minor confession of reverse engineering, but it’s really more of a visceral investigation into another viewpoint.

    Like George, who I suspect is also a linguistic stickler, I’m attracted to the mechanics and the nuances: the tonal beauty and the idiosyncratic phrases that keep literature alive and popping. But I can relate very much to Levi’s efforts to uncover new aspects which reveal that a novel’s “truth” is bright and expansive enough to illuminate those hidden cracks.

    I’m wondering, Mark, if your reticence to reread has more to do with coming to grips with “lesser” books that may have won you over once upon a time, but that may reveal changed sensibilities that you’re now uncomfortable with. I can relate to that too. But one can always find something new, whether from a fresh book or a reread, if the reading spectrum remains sufficiently eclectic. Which is why you’ll find “trashy” reads next to the “literary” in my bookpile.

  9. I don’t reread anywhere near as much as I wish I did, for the usual reason: there is too much I haven’t read yet at all. But I’ve been trying to incorporate rereading more, mostly of past favorites. Like you, I like the “window into a writer’s process”–but also into his progress and his project, and, as M says, to “think more about how the language is functioning.”

    Now that you’ve prompted me to think about it, I feel like it’s generally so rewarding I should spend a lot more of my time on it.

  10. If you’re a teacher, a great way to re-read without feeling guilty is to put a book on your syllabus. I just read White Noise for the third time for a class, and only this time through do I feel I really appreciated its brilliance.

    Some books offer their secrets up best on a first reading, others don’t. I also put Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping on my course, having never read it before, and I thought it provided an incredible experience on first reading. I’m already looking forward to re-reading it, but I’ll try to wait a few years, until I’ve changed a bit and can bring a fresh perspective.

  11. Two of my reading goals for this year are intertwined: read fewer newer, mediocre books, and reread more of the books that I love. It’s hard because there is, at least in my own head, some subtle pressure to keep current, not only because I have to by virtue of the monthly columns I contribute and other freelance review work that comes my way, but because I gravitate more towards new thanks to some subconscious peer pressure.

    But when I do make time to reread, I reach for books that inspired some kind of change in state or some greater connection with story and characters. Rona Jaffe’s THE BEST OF EVERYTHING is an annual reread because that book, even if it’s more than 50 years old, still tells me something of how young women survive in the workplace, how New York is a glittery, gaudy, corrupting and uplifting town, and how to create a world in which you want to escape into and escape from. Another on my “annual reread” list is Jetta Carleton’s THE MOONFLOWER VINE, a book I fell in love with last year and which, I suspect, will inspire a similar reaction because of the immediacy of the characters and how the story of each of them unfolds.

    So I guess rereading is for comfort, or for rediscovery – though it does provoke the fear of being greatly disappointed the second (or fifth?) time around.

    1. Thanks to everybody who responded, and my apologies to those who had to wait to have their comments approved. I’m still offline at home, though I’m led to believe that at this very moment technicians are repairing the downed telephone line at my home; my brief residential nightmare may soon be over.

      A few thoughts and responses:

      @Levi: I really like your point that you sometimes revisit a book because you were “distracted by plot or character” the first time around. Those things are important, of course, but part of the pleasure of rereading, I think, involves taking the pieces apart and seeing how the author made them work. I suppose that when I’m writing a review I’m usually doing some of that kind of rereading. Even if I’m not consuming the book front-to-back again, I am going back over passages that I’ve marked/starred/dog-eared/whatever to figure out what it was I found so interesting or problematic about them.

      @Ed I’m not necessarily worried that I’ll become uncomfortable by rereading something I loved the first time around. I suppose if I picked up “Winesburg, Ohio” again (for the third time) and wound up hating it, I’d mostly be curious what the hell happened; I’d wonder what it was about me as a reader or a person that connected me with the book so deeply then but loses me now. If nothing else, I’d probably get a blog post out of it. I agree that I’ll always learn *something* from rereading, but the urge to discover something new usually trumps the urge to reread. Regarding eclecticism, I’m happy that Kirkus is now firmly up and running again, tossing books my way that I wouldn’t have otherwise chosen, though I think I could stand to be more proactive on that front. I suppose most people could.

      It’s always risky to plan these things in advance, but one rereading project I want to make time for is to go back to Edward P. Jones’ two short story collections. I read them too far apart to notice, but as a recent Washington Post profile pointed out, the collections are linked: i.e., the characters in the first story in “Lost in the City” are connected to those in the first story of “All Aunt Hagar’s Children.” This is fairly mind-blowing to me, and I want to see what he accomplished by doing that. Are all the second stories sequels? Is he endeavoring to write a dozen or so novels sideways?

  12. I, like most above, tend to reach for a new book when I’m done; there’s always a new shiny one beckoning. But there are a few that I know would be extremely rewarding upon 2nd reading. The only problem is that these are generally the most challenging, time-consuming books: Gravity’s Rainbow, Sot-weed Factor, etc.

  13. I would put the question differently– how does anyone imagine they’ve understood a book at all if they haven’t reread it? I agree with Mr. Champion that rereading the mediocre is indeed a waste of time… and perhaps avoiding rereading for fear of tarnishing a fond memory is legitimate (or is it possible it’s good to realize you’ve changed or grown?). But in terms of understanding craft, not just the ‘how’ of it, but also the attendant wonder at something that achieves total effect… rereading is necessary.

  14. Carlos Fuentes re=reads “Don Quixote” once a year. That always sounded like a good idea to me — find a book that is absolutely central to your life and keep it in your head. A little like those people walking around at the end of Truffaut’s film of “Fahrenheit 471” who keep alive books that have been destroyed by committing them to memory. I’ve never quite settled on which one, though.

  15. A book published in Ireland by Irish Times literary corr Eileen Battersby resonates here: “Second Readings 52: From Beckett to Black Beauty”, in which Battersby looks back at 52 books she first read as a younger woman.

    Specifically I’d like to draw your attention to a review of the book by the peerless Declan Kiberd, the deeply wise and gifted academic in Ireland who write of the illuminating experience of second encounters with literature:

    “First impressions are lasting, but second readings can transform a person from one imprisoned by an experience to one who can contain and even transcend it. That is a central intuition of psychoanalysis. Revisiting a past moment, at which a life may have got snagged, allows a person to live more fully through the missed elements of that moment and then to move on.

    “There is another kind of second reading too, which allows us to experience all over again a feeling of unqualified pleasure. If every book is in some way a second reading of a life, then the great novels of the world capture that life most abundantly.

    “A piece of music can suddenly restore for us the lost world in which we first encountered it, and so also can a book. But to that recaptured experience is added a deeper consciousness of its meaning over time, along with a tender sense of the innocence of our initial responses.

    “Of nothing may this be more true than of books. CS Lewis once said that a story worth reading at the age of 10 will also be worth rereading at the age of 50. In that later venture, it is our prior selves, as well as the text, that we reread. And what we find is how deeply, at all stages, it has been reading us.”

  16. I love reading, but I’m also a slow reader. That means I tend to read new things except in a few situations when I remember really loving a book and wanting to re-read it to get to know it better. Re-reading lets me understand the subtler layers that the writer works to put in there and also helps me improve as a writer when I’m paying attention to craft rather than plot.

  17. @ David McK, thanks for the link.

    For me, reading is rereading, with few exceptions, just as writing is rewriting. And there are some books and stories I reread not just once, but regularly – Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, for example. The parallel to music is appropriate. No one listens to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations just once.

  18. Jeffrey Eugenides said in the Post or Times that he likes to reread Herzog for writerly inspiration (He’s not the only American writer to do that I’m sure). Shelby Foote, in a letter I believe, said he tried to reread Proust once a year.

    On a personal note, I don’t reread much for many of the same reasons others have noted. But I’ll occasionally reread favorite chapters of favorite books while between new books, before I’ve decided what to read next. One exception: Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote-reread it right after finishing it-couldn’t help myself with that one.

  19. Rereading seems to me the goal of reading: I read 10 books for the one that I’m going to want to reread. I love the way that structure and style reveal themselves on a second or third read. That’s one of the pleasures of reviewing a book, or teaching it, or writing a paper about it: you have the luxury of rereading something, and coming closer to understanding it, instead of shoving something new in your mouth (which does of course have its pleasures).

    But then again I’m the sort of person who will stay up another two hours to watch the movie again with the commentary track, which put me in a bad way when I rented that box set of Raging Bull, with the four or five excellent commentaries. I love to see how things are made…

  20. Like many others, I seldom reread, but feel I should do it more. Usually I reread for an external cause – a book club selection, a paid work assignment. My main motive is curiosity to see whether a favorite of my youth holds up decades later. Recent rereads and the verdict:

    The Book of Ebenezer Le Page – quirky protagonist and unforgettable setting (Guernsy), great authenticity but not much literary polish. After rereading it in a mixed-sex book club, I now see this as very much a man’s – one might say, a codger’s – book.

    Absalom, Absalom – Faulkner spews a huge amount of egregious blather in his quest to suggest the ineffable and could really use a good editor.

    The Great Gatsby – Fitzgerald is indeed a master of poetic prose, but there are some unsatisfying holes in the story – namely, Gatsby himself.

    Huck Finn- – Twain is wildly uneven as writer – something I’ve always known – but I appreciate his descriptive genius and mastery of the American vernacular far more now than as a kid and dissertation writer.

    Swann’s Way – Now making my fourth effort to tackle Proust. Eighty pages in, I’m appreciating what he does for the first time. This results perhaps from a combination of the Lydia Davis translation, my greater maturity as a reader, and a reading rate of 10 pages a night.

  21. I find I re-read things when I’m spurred to by a reference or a series of occurrences that point me back to a book. This has happened with Madame Bovary, with Ferdydurke, with Proust, with Homage to Catalonia. I sometimes re-read a book immediately after finishing it – Peter Handke comes to mind – just to make sure I got it.

    Often I’ll find myself in the midst of several references to a book (completely independent, just happenstance) that I’ve read and I’ll need to go re-read it because I’ll be damned if I can remember it.

    And, as I like to dip into literary criticism, I find I often need to re-read just to keep up with the critic.

    All this reminds me of a book – Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering by Wendy Lesser – that I bought, intending to read and never did. Maybe I will now…..

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