“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, and an active and creative reader is a rereader” Vladimir Nabokov
I am a rereader, and I have been almost as long as I’ve been a reader at all. When I was first learning to read, I read the same simple books over and over. I’ve reread he first chapter books I ever read (a obscure but wonderful series called The Woodland Gang) at least five times. I still have The Chronicles of Narnia practically memorized because I read them so many times.
I was something of a shock to me to learn the not everyone does this. Some people, perfectly intelligent people who love books, are finished after one reading. (If you are one of these people, dear reader, that’s fine. I won’t judge you. But I also can’t understand you).
It was difficult for me to imagine that not everyone has the location of their favorite books memorized on the library shelves. When I first read Little Women when I was in middle school, my greatest regret was that I hadn’t read it sooner, because now I wouldn’t be able to reread it as many times.
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Some books don’t hold up to multiple rereadings, of course. A book might be enjoyable the first time through but not deep enough or well-written enough to warrant a second reading. Unlike Nabokov, I do think the first time counts. There’s a feeling of suspense and anticipation, a feeling of discovery, that only comes once, with the first reading.
However, there are some books (Nabokov’s Lolita among them) that you truly do need to reread to understand, or at least to understand well. No matter how wonderful and exhilarating the first reading was, you will learn more with each rereading. It’s as though details and ideas that you never saw the first time unfold themselves out of the pages where they were hidden.
Rereading a book after a long period of time is like revisiting an old friend. You realize the ways that you have grown and changed, and you find that your relationship has changed in subtle ways because you are bringing new experiences to your reading.
At the same time, every time that you chose to reread a book, you have less time to read other books for the first time. There are so many books in the world that you could never even hope to read them all, but what if one of the books you’ve chosen to forgo reading to reread something for the third time would have been one of your favorites?
As Patricia Meyer Spacks writes in her aptly named On Rereading, we reread “in the face of guilt-inducing awareness of all the other books that [we] should have read at least once but haven’t.”
I guess it all comes down to striking a balance between the familiar and the unknown, between being adventurous and playing it safe. If you simply race through your reading because of all the great books you want to be able to read, you won’t nearly as much out of them.
It’s like eating a piece of really good chocolate: you know you have a whole box of chocolates, and each piece has the potential to be an amazing, mouthwatering experience, but just because you have that box of chocolates doesn’t mean that you should savor the piece you’re eating any less. For me to truly savor a book means reading it, and rereading it… and maybe rereading it again.
If you want to think some more about rereading, I suggest you check out this article in the New Yorker.