Why Do We Reread Books?
Welcome to 2019, readers!
I am so excited for what the new year has in store for Wet Ink. I've got some exciting posts lined up and I can't wait to share them with you.
I'd like to take a second to thank all of my lovely readers. I appreciate your engagement, comments, and questions. This is a passion project of mine and it means a lot to be able to share it with you.
Without further ado, let's take a look at the question of the week: why do we reread books?
I was led to exploring this question while on vacation this summer in Florida. A friend of mine pulled out a random book from the Harry Potter series and began reading in earnest. She has probably read the series at least twice before and was embarking on the third.
“Why read this again?” I asked
Her answer was simple, “Because, they are my favorite.”
What she said got me thinking a lot about why we read books multiple times. Most avid reader's wish-list supersedes the have-read pile. And with so many new books published each year, why do some call us to read them again?
More Than A Feeling
Sometimes we reread books that have played a significant role in our lives. We have a strong affinity for A Wrinkle In Time, Nancy Drew, Goosebumps, Harry Potter, Little Women, books that made up our childhood. In these cases, we reread for nostalgia.
Nostalgia is an interesting feeling, often the brunt of critique or an excess of sentimentality, distillation, ephemerality, and shallowness. In some ways that makes sense. Relying on nostalgia alone can leave something falling flat. But if we look at nostalgia from this lens alone, we miss the beauty that comes from looking back.
Why do we look back?
To check if we forgot or missed something, to correct and error, to see what we left behind, to see what has changed.
Often this process of looking back can teach us something about where we are. Going back to your childhood room can elicit fond memories, but it can also be a testament to the person you have grown to be, the changes you have made, the decisions that have lead you in a particular direction.
Sometimes I think about rereading in this way. Rereading books from 5 or 10 years ago offers a nostalgic feeling, a remembrance of what it was like to read it for the first time. This recently happened to me with The Crimson Petal and The White by Michel Fabre. I found this book in quaint bed and breakfast in New England. After undergoing a tumultuous time in my personal life, I found comfort in the 900 page Victorian fiction. Developing a strong relationship with Fabre’s characters seemed to fill the void of friendship left in my own life.
About a month ago, I picked the book up again and I was transported back to June of 2015. I did not read the book in its entirety, but I felt a sense of gratitude for the book that showed me friendship. Rereading books can give us a feeling of warmth, comfort, and security.
You Have Changed
There is a well-groomed argument that says people don’t change. While that may be true in the fundamental ways, I can say for certain that people grow. Our taste in everything from food to clothing to books to music undergoes a transformation as we get older. You, in some ways, have changed therefore your reading of a book has also changed.
I have read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 4 times in my life, and each time I opened the book I found something new, something that I couldn’t believe I did not see the previous times I read it. The book remained constant, it was my approach to the text that gave me new insights. I also read this book in different contexts, ranging from personal to academic.
Pleasure reading and academic reading are two different animals. Academics rely on rereading and reexamining texts in their field, because the more time you are able to dedicate to a text, the more that it can reveal itself to you in new ways. The brain is so interesting in this way. We often forget most of what we read within 24 hours of reading/learning it. This curve is different depending on the type and complexity of the information but the fact remains that memory is not a reliable source. Rereading a text, therefore, allows you the opportunity to develop a foundation for not only learning, but also comprehension and retention.
Rereading books lets you be introspective. Joan Didion, in her famous essay on keeping a notebook, said “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”
Introspection is a powerful tool, and when used appropriately it can offer profound insight. Growth, maturity, and experience collide when we reread literature. How has your personal experience influenced your reading?
Beyond The Page
Authors have invented a genre as a testament to their love of rereading: bibliomemoir.
This genre is arguably one of the most difficult to write, and write well. A compilation of literary criticism, biography, autobiography, and memoir, these stories leave little room for error. They should have the accuracy of a biography, the aptitude for criticism, and the tenderness of a memoir. They ask the writer to be self-conscious but not self-absorbed, present but not flashy. Only through rereading books could this genre have come to life. Some famous examples are:
Rebecca Meade, My Life In Middlemarch
Phyllis Rose, The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time
Geoff Dyer, Out Of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence
Christopher Beha, The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me about Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else
Rick Gekoski, Outside of A Dog: A Bibliomemoir
Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year
These are just a few of many examples that have flooded the market. The emergence of this genre is quite interesting to me and says a lot about our interest not only in classic literature, but in the ways that the literature is experienced in a contemporary context.
Rereading books can be a powerful experience. If you let it you will be able to learn more about yourself, the text, and your relationship to it. What else can we really ask for in a book?