There and Back Again

“Since I sleep in the shadow of my to-read pile, it would feel dangerously irresponsible to read the same book twice” – Joe Dunthorne

Dear readers, I’m sitting here reflecting on that quote (and also wondering who Joe Dunthorne is), and finding myself agreeing with its sentiment but totally ignoring it in execution. The act of a rereading can be conflicting to a reader, but it is one I consider greatly when stuck in the doldrums of a tedious “new” read. Why am I wasting my eye sockets on this bland original work when I know that I can pick up something tried and true just as easy. I suppose it’s for the same reason I don’t just watch Die Hard 3 endlessly (perhaps that’s a bad example because as I’m thinking about it that sounds like something I could totally do). I guess what I’m saying is that while perfection is a wonderful thing in a book, the search for it is better, and nothing will recapture that.

I’ve been thinking about this topic since I read this piece in the Guardian, which in turn reminded me about this being covered in the NY Times previously. Some of my favorite authors are guilty of being notorious rereaders, yet they view it as a means of discovery. I decided to dive back into a book I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Now I’m a big LOTR fan, but Tolkien’s “prequel” has never meant as much to me. I had hoped rereading would kindle my interest in the upcoming film, while also reaffirming my adoration for the author. I immediately remembered what a quick and enjoyable read Tolkien can be, but why I had not had the urge to pick the book up again – it’s so trivial in the scope of the expansive story, and it doesn’t help that J.R.R doesn’t seem to be taking the world he has created seriously just yet.

“I decide to reread something I read 20 years ago and then give up because the original experience, presumed forgotten, turns out to have been mysteriously preserved, like a leaf between the pages.” – Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer, ladies and gentleman. A smart man. I didn’t want to wait 20 years to pick up Roberto Bolaño‘s 2666 again, as it has been pestering me since I finished it soon after its release in late 2008, so I just went for it. Ask me to name a favorite author and Bolaño is almost certain to be named straightaway near the top of the list. His ability to draw out a story that is at once experimental and almost rambling (his run-on sentences are legendary and inspiring), yet compact, is consistently engaging. A giant work like 2666 is like counter to what I enjoyed most about him previously, but because the book is divided into five parts that casually intersect, it never feels daunting. I pressed on, with optimism similar to Dyer’s, and remembered some things that are absolutely flawless about this work (Book one: “The Part About the Critics”, is especially strong in my opinion, and most relative to Bolaño’s other great work, The Savage Detectives), I ultimately ended up simply skimming through the rest of the work – something was lost from that original experience that I couldn’t recapture.

“I reread in order to remind myself how good you have to be in order to be any good at all.” – Edmund White

Now dear readers, don’t get the impression that rereading has been a poor experience for me as a result of these two prior examples. I actually came here to praise its value (I just seem to be not very effective). My main case in point is Michael Chabon. I make a point of rereading The Mysteries of Pittsburgh every year at the beginning of the summer, and have reread Wonder Boys on more than one occasion. I just finished The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and plan on taking the time to go over it again in the near future. The reason is just as Mr. White explained above. Whether you are a writer or a reader, one that is fond of literature knows what their threshold for quality is, and occasionally we need that reminder. Chabon is my shining example. Sometimes we need to pick up those books we hold high in our canon – serves right that I have read Vonnegut over and over, that Hemingway and Bukowski lend themselves to regular visits, and that the mere mention of East of Eden will have me itching to pick it up yet again.

Yet all of this has still led me to reading something new – or more definitively, the new collection of short stories by Jon McGregor, an author who I would have forgotten about had I not reread If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things after seeing passages copied into journals of mine. So perhaps reflection is a means of discovery after all.

What do you think, friends? Are there some books you can’t shake and have to revisit? Post below into comments for interactive fun!

– Tony


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9 responses to “There and Back Again

  1. I regularly reread. While I don’t reread books that I found just okay, the books I love I reread multiple times. I find that I discover new things everytime I read a book. I’ve read “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, for example, over a dozen times. And each time I find a surprise, an interesting word choice, a nuance I had missed before, etc. But, of course, that is just my experience.

  2. caitlin mccaskey

    I must have read Charlotte’s Web eight times as a child. I just loved that pig. I went through A Tree Grows in Brooklyn three times in middle school, and I’m always up for rereading Lord of the Flies, The Grapes of Wrath, Player Piano, and any of the Anne of Green Gables books. I think that when a book feels familiar to you, like an old friend, nothing makes more sense than wanting to read it all over again.

  3. Denny

    Hey Tony! Great post. I’m a big fan of re-reading. Especially stuff heavy on philosophy or psychology. I can never soak it all in on the first pass. I’ve found myself discovering more on the third read than the first. Even light fiction, if I find it inspiring enough to read again, I’ve found to pay creative dividends. Of course I don’t get to as much new stuff as I’d like to, but who does? Given the limited time of a casual reader, I’ll take a deep familiarity with a small repertoire any day.

  4. ZZMike

    A well-known writer (whose name I can’t remember….) said that he re-reads a book every 10 years or so (not all of them), so he can tell how he’s changed over the years.

    People definitely grow over the years (at least, that’s the plan), so when you read a good book (like “philosophy or psychology”), you’ve learned a lot and can pick up the obscure references. You come back to it with a different mind.

    That’s why I advise reading the classics (Shakespeare, Charlotte’s Web, &c) early on, so you don’t have to learn Greek mythology from James Joyce.

  5. Rereading is necessary for me to feel safe, like I’m home, when I need it. I revisit quite a few: “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is one that comes to mind… Raymond Carver also endures my repeated visits.

  6. Artfully written, and yes; I completely agree with your sentiment. Though your mention of Tolkien might have sent me over the edge before I had a chance to disagree (and I could hardly help myself from rereading ‘The Hobbit’ just as soon as I finished your post).

  7. Joelle

    Riddley Walker by Russell Hoben is the only book that I have ever reread immediately after reading it throught once. It is also one of the few that I’ve read more than three times.

  8. learningtowriteagain

    I can understand its appeal, but I’m generally too excited over my “To Read” list to do much rereading for pleasure. However, I do like to reread favorite passages before writing or when I’m stuck.

  9. Bridget

    There are a couple of books that I can’t even pick up without starting to reread them (and finishing). So, I avoid those books most of the time in order to read new books.

    I am, like you, rereading The Hobbit in preparation for seeing the movie, and I agree with your assessment 100%. It’s just a bit too light to hold my attention. When I was young, I reread it several times, so this new reaction must be due to age.

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