Wednesday, 9 June 2010

On Re-reading

Edward Ardizzone illustration taken from The Little Book Room byEleanor Farjeon

I was talking to someone about books once, and was stunned when they airily declared that they had never re-read a book in their lives. "What's the point?" they asked as I reeled backwards in horror, calling weakly for the smelling salts "I already know what happens in the end."

This declaration shocked me far more than friends who admit that they have never finished a book, ever. I always understood that there were people who just were not readers, for whom the concept of reading for pleasure makes no sense. I can respect this, some derive great enjoyment from playing sports or doing exercise, for instance, two healthy and undeniably popular ways of spending time but the sight of a rounders bat or a treadmill make me feel queasy and incredibly bored in equal measure.

However, I thought that those of us who are 'readers' would be similar in our enjoyment of books. I assumed that every one who has read and loved a book would eventually return at least once to spend more time  with favoured characters, re-live the thrilling highlights and examine the tale from a different perspective. Whenever one visits a book again, it is with different experiences and opinions, we are older and have read more in the interim, which will colour our view and change the reading experience.

When we love a song we play it again and again until our neighbours are crying and begging us to stop and it is not considered odd to want to look at a painting more than once even though you already "know what happens in it."

I suppose it depends on what kind of books you like to read. A beautifully wrought novel examining the inner lives of the characters may reward a re-reader more than a plot-driven detective novel but I still think that a mystery is still worth re-reading when you know the culprit, motive and weapon because you are reading the book with new knowledge which will change your attitude to characters and allow you to appreciate the cleverness of the writing.

There is of course one big fat con for re-reading and that is the massive amount of books that all voracious readers want to read, feel that we should read and yet know that we will have less time to read  if we keep wallowing in beloved tomes that we have already read several times over. It is a dilemma, I do admit. But never re-reading a book? Madness...


  1. I rarely re-read. I think I've only done it twice in my life so far. The main reason for this is that I'm scared my happy memories of a book will be ruined if the re-read is unsuccessful.

    I also read mainly for the story. I enjoy the unexpected, being pulled along by the story and not knowing how it will end. I think knowing the end of the story will ruin it for me. For this reason I never re-watch a film I've seen before either.

  2. You do have a point about spoiling happy memories; I have definitely done that before.

    I wonder if plot orientated readers are always going to be less likely to re-read a book? It's true that I'm not plot-driven as a reader or as a film watcher, so maybe that's why I can bear endless repeats.

  3. I've even re-read a couple of mysteries to test the theory of whether it really mattered that I'd remember the outcome, but it didn't (a P.D. James and an Abigail Padgett); I just noticed different things and paid less attention to the plot.

    Mostly though, when I re-read, it's a literary novel, one in which I've felt the author had layered it so beautifully that it just plain deserved more readings than the single one I'd already given it. I've always gotten more out of a book the second time through.

  4. "I still think that a mystery is still worth re-reading when you know the culprit, motive and weapon because you are reading the book with new knowledge which will change your attitude to characters and allow you to appreciate the cleverness of the writing."

    Exactly! I think that even if you read mostly/only for plot, there's a lot to be gained from re-reading. Besides, no matter how good a memory someone has, you're bound to forget some endings! Having said this, I don't re-read as much as I'd like to because I feel pressured by all those books I haven't read. Which is silly, I know.

  5. Madness indeed! :) That´s a really interesting post.

    I cannot imagine not revisiting my favorite books, sometimes, knowing the end and everything else that happens is the very point of rereading.

    I have to confess that the books I most often reread are Agatha Christie´s cosy crimes, and surely there is nothing more plot and solution oriented than a murder mystery.

    I also understand about spoiling a favorite book by perhaps rereading it at the wrong time. But most often these books simply put me back into the happy mood I had when I first descovered them.

  6. I keep a list of all the books I've reread, just to see what I really like, what has the biggest influence on me (I read somewhere that if you read a book 3 times it becomes a part of your life or who you are). Jane Austen is quite high on the list and I do find new things in her books every time I reread them and they provide so much comfort. Harry Potter too and some Shakespeare, The Importance of Being Earnest, A Room With a View, The Secret Garden... short cozy books work well! ;) I often find myself craving comfort when I read, especially when life gets stressful, so as much as there's always more I want to read, I do go back to old favourites and want to build my collection of that type of book. Sometimes I find it too stressful not knowing what happens in a book or movie (I'm just a little sensitive!), there's too much suspense and I really like rereading or rewatching something where I know exactly what will happen and can re-examine it from a safer view point. Although this year I'm also trying to find new comfort reads!

  7. Although there are some novels that I've read, loved, but have no need to re-read. However, there are some (Harry Potter and Lolita) that I just love re-reading. Whether it's a few chapters or the entire book, sometimes a story will strike a chord with me, and thus inspires a re-read. Actually, there's on book, a YA novel, that I first read in High School and bought a copy for myself because it was so hilarious: the Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman. I loved it because it was laugh-out-loud funny and populated by a great selection of intelligent characters.

  8. Buried In Print, I am the same; some novels have so many layers that one read is just not enough!

    Bina, exactly! Sometimes knowing the end enhances a reading experience and helps you to understand the characters' motives and intentions more fully.

    Nymeth, I forget quite a lot about books that I have read too. Sometimes all I can remember is that I loved it or the feelings that it evoked.

    Carolyn, I love to reread Room With A View as well and actually have to watch a lot of films twice because they've been scary and I've missed a lot as my eyes have been behind my hands!

    Lydia, Harry Potter and Lolita are also rereading faves of mine. They are both the kind of books which you can just dip in and out of instead of always reading all the way through.