Do You Enjoy Rereading?  And If So, What?

I am a devoted rereader.  Give me a Brontë or an Austen for the nth time and I am intoxicated.  My most extreme rereading phase was the decade when I began War and Peace every New Year’s Day and finished by the next New Year’s Eve.  

Occasionally I reread a book  I dislike.  What did I miss, I wonder, when everyone else is crazy about it?   I recently failed to finish a rereading of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play It As It Lays, which I have been assured is a masterpiece. Beautiful prose, but perhaps better-employed in her stunning essays. 

In Play It As It Lays, the wilted heroine, Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-uh),  is so limp she can barely get off the patio where she sleeps under towels.  She spends her days speeding along the freeway and having a nervous breakdown.   If she isn’t on the freeway by ten,  she loses her rhythm, she informs us.  As a non-driver, I was annoyed when she kicked off her sandals to feel her bare feet on the pedal as she zooms at 100 miles an hour.

“Just give her a ticket,” I muttered.

The novel is not Didion’s forte.

I recently reread some of Didion’s essays, and found them extremely conservative, though I’d admired them on a first reading.  Her essays on the Women’s Movement of the 1970s and Doris Lessing are so venomous they made my hair stand on end.  And I no longer consider her stylized essay, “Slouching towards Bethlehem,’ a masterpiece.  Somehow, I no longer share her point-of-view.

A rereading gone wrong.

Back to rereading:  there are avid rereaders, and other readers who fiercely disapprove of rereading.   Tom Lamont at The Observer is in my camp, though he is something of an apologist.  He says “Rereading is therapy, despite the accompanying dash of guilt, and I find it strange that not everybody does it. Why wouldn’t you go back to something good? I return to these novels for the same reason I return to beer, or blankets or best friends.” 

Peter Damien at Book Riot shares my philosophy that a reader can appreciate a book more on a second or third or whatever reading. 

I re-read endlessly, and I think of it as nothing different than reading a book for the first time. I maintain a reading journal of books I’ve read and how long it’s taken me, and there are many titles repeated throughout the journal. I don’t differentiate them. I think it’s as completely integral to the reading process as the first time through a book.”

The  Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda at The Washington Post is not a fan of rereading. The only time he rereads is when he is teaching a book or writing an introduction for a book.  He writes, I loved Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, but could the analogous Chinese classic, Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone, be just as good? Like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I want to run and find out.”

Tom Thurston at The Guardian believes rereading is pretentious.  In fact, he doesn’t believe people really reread. He thinks they say it to show off. 

… nothing will make you more insecure than the person who casually drops it into conversation that this summer, as well as a couple of weighty war histories, Julian Barnes’s latest and a fascinating new translation of the Qur’an, he’ll be re-reading Anna Karenina. While it doesn’t leave much time for snorkelling or hammock snoozing after a good lunch, there’s no reason why people shouldn’t choose to bury themselves under a pile of books on holiday. But there is one little verb that’s inexcusable, wherever you are, whatever you’re reading this summer. “Re-read”. Now hear this: anyone who talks about re-reading a book is arrogant, narrow-minded or dim.

Wow, he is fierce!

Do you enjoy rereading?  If so, what?   If not, why not?

30 thoughts on “Do You Enjoy Rereading?  And If So, What?”

  1. That Guardian writer’s opinion is one of the most bizarre I’ve ever seen! Makes you wonder what is his problem! But I have no intention of reading it again. 🙂

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  2. I suspect that people who boast that they don’t reread often don’t read carefully to begin with.
    They are willing to listen to music again or go to the same shop again or eat the same food agaon or follow the same walk again but read the same book again? – Never!
    They think it makes them sound good, that they can get all that can be found in a book at one reading.

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      1. Having just learned that Sajid Javid – who has just resigned as the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer – rereads Ayn Rand for pleasure, I have suddenly become more sympathetic to the “no rereading” brigade!

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  3. Tom Thurston is a dolt. A book like Anna Karenina is one that should be read multiple times, at multiple times in one’s life. You’ll have a different perspective each time and you and the book will enrich each other. The kind of reader he’s describing, who talks about books as some kind of status symbol, is a philistine.

    I love to reread. Sometimes my opinion changes on the second read, sometimes going up, sometimes down, but it’s always fascinating to see how the book has transformed as I have grown and evolved. I wish I had a second life so I could use it for nothing but rereading.

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    1. Tom Thurston has a very strange take. He doesn’t like to reread, so he thinks the rest of us don’t He says we don’t reread Tintin. I wouldn’t count on it! I reread absolutely everything I love.

      Yes, our rereadings change with time, and we find new meaning every time.

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      1. I wonder, does Tom Thurston have children, or did his parents read to him as a child at all? If he has undergone the experience of repeated rereading – especially with several children – I can understand his distaste. Once, I liked The Very Hungry Caterpillar…
        If he insisted on the same story again and again as a child, though, you’d think he could understand the rereaders’ pleasure.

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      2. I have reread Tintin countless times. And Anna Karenina several times. Its like saying ‘ok, I’ve heard The Beatles’ Yesterday, no need to listen to it again’.

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  4. The Tom Thurston article is bizarre. He is entitled to his opinion and his own reading preferences of course, but to dismiss those of others who don’t concur with his is a bit strong. As it happens, I love re-reading, as I can always find new things to discover with a book, especially one which has meant something to me in the past.

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  5. Yes, I’m a rereader. When I was a girl I most loved returning to trusted stories when I was feeling sad/stressed and needed cheering. I reread my favourites in L.M. Montgomery’s oeuvre whenever exam time rolled around, for instance. Now, though, I reread more to refresh and test my memory of a story that I remember resonated with me earlier. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about rereading more of Carol Shields. She’s someone I’ve reread occasionally over the years, but I’m considering a more concerted start-to-stop reread. That’s fun too.

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  6. Also meant to say (haha – my second add-on comment today) that I recently watched the Didion biographical film, The Center Will Not Hold and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

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      1. The film definitely re-ignited my interest in reading some of the older books (including Play) more because of her way of speaking about the works than because of the works themselves. I’m not sure if there’s very much overlap between her way of looking at the world and mine, but the interview piqued my curiosity for sure. I guess I’ll have to read the book before I watch the film on YT. Hah.

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  7. I’ve read Dorothy Dunnett’s historical Lymond series three times, and her Niccolo series twice. They improve, and I understand them better, each time. Each time I’ve emerged feeling homesick for the worlds she’s created and missing her characters. And each time I’ve been left with a better understanding of European, Slavic and Asian history and cultures.

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    1. I do want to read Dunnett. I own a couple of volumes, which I rescued at a library book sale. I knew I’d want to read them some day. I love historical novels, so must now run and get them off the shelf.

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  8. I’ve always reread good books. My test of a good book is whether or not I want to reread it. There are some books I love that are not necessarily rereadable, such as mysteries.
    The first book I read on my own, at age 6, was Betsy Tacy by Maude Hart Lovelace. It was so good that I turned back to the beginning and started a most pleasurable reread. Some books beg to be read every 5 or 10 year.s If the text of _Madame Bovary_ does not change, I do. I’ve read about Emma when I was young, when I was her age, when I was older, and when I had achieved old age. Each read is worth it! Ditto: Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Dickens, and others.

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    1. I absolutely love the authors you mention, and agree that even those you don’t enjoy as much can be worth another look. Lockdown makes me want to take another look at writers I’ve neglected.

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