Re-reading. I know people do it all the time. “I loved it so much, I read it over and over again!” they tell me. Some of my favorite people in the world do it. “Yes, it’s sad that one of your favorite authors died, and they’ll never write another new novel again, but there’s always re-reading,” they say. My true confession of the day: I can’t re-read. Least of all, my favorite books.
I wasn’t always this way. I spent all of eighth grade reading S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders over and over and over again. I mixed in Rumble Fish and Tex, but really, it was all Outsiders all the time. Particularly in the hallways at school, between classes, when I walked with the book in front of my face so I wouldn’t have to look at anyone.
I think the re-reading aversion started when I re-read The Little Leftover Witch, by Florence Laughlin, as an adult. This was my favorite book in the third grade, and remains one of them, despite the re-reading experience. The story of a grumpy little witch who becomes a sweet little girl through the love of a kind family. Re-reading the book as an adult hit my anti-conformist buttons in such a way that I felt embarrassed for ever having treasured the book so much. Nonetheless, as I look at it now, I appreciate the spirit of hopefulness that I saw in the story, especially as it’s counter-balanced by another childhood favorite called Konrad, about a little boy who changes from factory-made perfect to naughty and normal. Again, at that age, I needed to have the hope that people could transform like that.
The thing is, I savor so much the feeling of reading a book for the first time. It’s like love at first sight. Middlesex, another one of my all time favorites (finally, an adult book!), is a perfect example. For me, the story was about a person finding his identity in the very confusing situation of being born a hermaphrodite, then being raised as a girl. I don’t want to re-read it and find out that it’s got any other themes. I know it does; but I just want it to remain the book I fell in love with many years ago.
Eat, Pray, Love is another example. As I read it, I was deeply touched by the descriptions of spiritual practices in the ashram. I actually bought the book so that I could lend it to friends, something I rarely do. Since then, I have seen more critical reviews and realized that gosh, not everybody loved that book! The last thing I want to do is go back and re-read it. What if I suddenly see the flaws in the object of my adoration? No, I can’t handle it. Although I will go see the movie.
The sad part is that lately I’ve noticed a disinclination even to read the same authors again! I am fighting it, successfully enough to have enjoyed Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity while on vacation last month, despite that I had already read A Long Way Down a few years ago. But it’s tough with so many new books coming out all the time.
The funny thing is that as I write this post, I find these attitudes I carry shifting and changing already. Out of curiosity, I picked up Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering, by Wendy Lesser. In the first chapter, she talks about re-reading The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James.
I cared less, this time through, about what decisions Isabel made than about how and why she made them. And this, in turn, gave me far more patience with the length and complexity of James’s sentences. . . . whereas I used to be tempted to skip ahead, I now wanted to saunter through the commas, linger at the semicolons, and take small contemplative breaks at the periods. The book was much better than I had remembered it. More to the point, I was a much better reader of it. Both pleasure and understanding came more easily to me.
Perhaps that transformation I read about all those years ago is still possible.