Re-reading seems to be a divisive topic in the reading community. I know some readers who never, or rarely, re-read a book. I’m in the opposite camp: I think re-reading a beloved book is one of the greatest pleasures in life.
Last year, of the 62 books I read, 10 of them were re-reads. This year is only two months old, and I’ve already re-read 5 books. I easily have hundreds (more likely thousands) of unread books on my To Be Read list, but I still make time to re-visit books I’ve already read.
I’ve thought about the different reasons I re-read books. They mostly fall into these three categories:
- I want to be transported into a familiar, usually extremely cozy, world that I love. This is my favorite type of re-reading. It’s the equivalent of re-watching your favorite movie, or listening to a favorite song or putting on your favorite jeans. It feels happy, welcoming and familiar to read these books. The characters are like old friends. Books that fall into this category for me are often series: the Harry Potter series, the Anne of Green Gables novels, the Betsy-Tacy series, the Lord of the Rings. But non-series novels can also fit this category too: Little Women, Alice in Wonderland, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I Capture the Castle. Just thinking about these books makes me long for a cozy chair, a blanket, and a cup of tea.
- I want to refresh my memory on the information a book contains. An example of this is In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. I read it years ago – it’s what first made me want to go to Australia. Last year I re-read it via an audiobook edition while traveling through Australia – I wanted to remember the historical background the Bill Bryson provides in his characteristically entertaining way. Re-reading a book before a sequel comes out, or before watching a movie adaptation, also fall into this category.
- I want to get to know better a book I consider to be an “all time favorite” – to read it deeper and broaden my familiarity and understanding of it. I believe that if a book is an all time favorite, it should be revisited regularly. It has new things to show you at different points in your life. I re-read Slaughterhouse Five for the third time last spring while traveling to Dresden. I regularly re-read Salinger. I just re-read The Elegance of the Hedgehog for this reason. I re-read Jane Austen. (Most of the books under category 1 also fall into this category, as they are usually all time favorites as well.)
I read this passage in Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer, and it made me think a lot about re-reading, and specifically the type of re-reading in category 3:
In his essays “The First Steps Toward a History of Reading,” Robert Darnton describes a switch from “intensive” to “extensive” reading that occurred as books began to proliferate. Until relatively recently, people read “intensively,” says Darnton. “They had only a few books — the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two — and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness.”
But after the printing press appeared around 1440, things began gradually to change. In the first century after Gutenberg, the number of books in existence increased fourteenfold. It became possible, for the first time, for people without great wealth to have a small library in their own homes, and a trove of easily consulted external memories close at hand.
Today, we read books “extensively,” without much in the way of sustained focus, and, with rare exceptions, we read each book only once. We value quantity of reading over quality of reading. We have no choice, if we want to keep up with the broader culture. Even in the most highly specialized fields, it can be a Sisyphean task to try to stay on top of the ever-growing mountain of words loosed upon the world each day.
This passage made me stop and think about the way I read. Reading more intensively is something that has been on my mind often lately, as I’ve been looking back at books I’ve read and realize how little I remember about them. Farnam Street has a great post about taking notes while reading, and his process for reading more intensely. I have my own, less formal technique. I’m good at taking notes and marking important thoughts while I’m reading, but I could benefit from more reflection once I’m finished and have time to reflect on the content. Joshua Foer also notes that Michael de Montaigne also suffered from the extensive vs. intensive reading dilemma, and compensated a bit by “writing in the back of every book a short critical judgement, so as to have at least some general idea of what the tome was about and what he thought of it.” I love that idea and might adopt it myself.
Reading more intensively can also be achieved by re-reading. It gives you the benefit of bringing all the new experiences and knowledge you’ve acquired since your first reading – you’re a slightly different person, and the book holds different things for you. I’m often surprised that the types of things I mark in a book the second time through are sometimes completely different than what jumped out at me the first time. When you’re re-reading a novel, you also have the benefit of knowing the ending in advance (if you remember it), and can read the beginning with a deeper understanding of the narrative themes and building of the overall story.
There are a few books high on my list of books to re-read: books that I consider among my all time favorites, but that I’ve only read once. This list includes: David Copperfield, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Book Thief, The Bell Jar, and Just Kids. I’m excited to revisit these wonderful books with fresh eyes.
Embracing re-reading and knowing that reading intensively has value allows me to re-read without the burden of feeling like I should be reading from my endless stack of unread books. I have no guilt about it. I read a lot of new-to-me books, but I have no regret about the time I spend reading books I already know that I love, and getting to know them better.
What about you, dear reader? Are you Team Re-read of Team Read Once? If you re-read, what makes you choose what books to re-read? What are your favorite books to revisit? How long do you usually wait between re-reads of a single book?
More on reading and rereading: