In Defense of Rereading

I recently came across an article where several notable writers revisited their earlier works, rereading them and remarking on their current feelings about these long-ago expressions of their selves. Philip Roth, for instance, checked in on Alexander Portnoy and Portnoy’s Complaint. Marilynne Robinson talked about the writing process for Housekeeping, and Junot Diaz writes about his frustration while working on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

I loved reading these authors’ reactions to their own work. Hearing what George Saunders had to say about CivilWarLand in Bad Decline was the most interesting to me, though. He was the most critical of his earlier work, the most uncomfortable with it. He also talked about the memories it jostled out of him, taking him back to where he was when writing the book, the actual physical places he was when he wrote and edited the stories.

In closing, he said this:

It was interesting to come back to something I’d made and find how much it had changed. Though we think we are making permanent monuments against which our egos can rest, we’re actually making something more akin to a fog cloud. We come back to what we’ve made and find out it’s been changing all along. We’ve changed, the artistic context around the story has changed, the world has changed. And this is kind of wonderful and useful. It made me remember that the real value of the artistic act is not product but process.

I loved that sentiment, for what it represented about the feelings all of us (writers, artists, creators) have when we look back on something we made long ago. Who among us hasn’t stumbled upon an old notebook, opened it to a poem we wrote in high school (it’s always a poem), and thought, “WHO WROTE THAT? It cannot be me.” Of course, to compare our high school poetry to George Saunders’s excellent short story collection is a little harsh, but you get my meaning.

But his statement also struck me as an apt description of how I feel about rereading books, particularly books I connected deeply with long, long ago.

Rereading, if not exactly a controversial topic, is at least one that some book-lovers have strong opinions on. I know fellow readers who think it’s crazy to reread books — I mean, it’s such a big world, there are so many books out there, and more coming into being every day, and our time is so limited… I get that, I do. Trust me, I often think that the thing I fear most about getting old and dying is not the pain and decay — it’s that I will not have had the chance to read all the books I want to. (Seriously, these are the things that trouble me. That and running out of red wine at an inopportune time.)

But, just as strident in the other camp are the rereaders, and I am proud to plant my proverbial flag there.

Because we are different people from one minute to the next, day to day, year to year. We change. The world changes. And given that we change, how we feel about certain books changes. And what we get out of those books changes. And I love seeing the different things I get out of certain books over time.

That’s why to me, it doesn’t even feel like rereading, really. I often feel I’m approaching a book anew.

For instance, a few years ago I reread Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn. This is a book I’d read only once before, about two decades earlier in high school. In fact, I still have that original copy. I remembered loving it, its weirdness, the alternate reality Dunn created that felt so different, but also felt so normal. It did not let me down upon rereading it. In fact, as I’ve often found, my appreciation for it deepened, and I felt that at their heart, the Binewskis were a family (of freaks, yes) not all that different from my own, or yours, or your neighbor’s.

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It doesn’t always go as planned, though. When I reread Life of Pi (no, I haven’t seen the movie), I did not have that same magical feeling as the first time I read it. Maybe this is because of the nature of the book’s ending, so I knew what was coming. Or maybe it was just that I changed and something in me didn’t feel the same this go ’round. I adored and even wept over that book the first time. This time, eh. Rereading can be weird like that.

I’ve come to ask myself while reading a (truly) new book, “Would I reread this?” That’s usually a great indicator of how I really feel about a book. I’m careful in my reading selections, and it’s rare that I out-and-out hate something. I like lots of things. But I find I only want to reread certain books now and then.

Some, like Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! have been a part of my life for decades. I think I’ve reread that one twice now, and I know I’m not done with it yet. Faulkner, in particular, is an author you can keep going back to and getting new things from his works every time. I feel the same way about The Sound and the Fury, naturally. (Now, THAT book, you simply MUST reread if you ever really want to get a handle on it. I think I’ve reread it three times and I feel like I’m getting there. Maybe.)

A more recent addition to the “will keep rereading forever” club for me is Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. I first read it last year and could not put it down. I immediately reread it. We’re talking: finish the book, turn the last page, then flip back to the first page and start over. The nuances of that book, the way she gets at longing and nostalgia — LIFE! — astound me. It’s so beautiful. I love cranky old Olive, too. She’s a handful. (And, yes, I did see the recent HBO mini-series: two thumbs up from me, although even though I love Bill Murray, I’m not sure he was exactly right in that role.)

Now, maybe I hadn’t changed that much in between my first and second readings of Olive Kitteridge, but I still loved it even more fiercely the second time through. I’m waiting awhile before I go for it again.

Rereading, for me, is like sitting down with an old friend, one I’ve known for years but haven’t kept up with. I like to see how I’ve changed and grown, and how I haven’t. I like to notice the things that stand out to me that didn’t before, which things speak to me that were previously silent.

It’s amazing to see yourself in books, and to see your growth as a person and your life experiences reflected there. And I do, each and every time I reread something.

All you anti-rereaders out there should try it sometime.

5 thoughts on “In Defense of Rereading

  1. Pingback: Week in review, week ending 11/30/14 | Random thoughts of 210Darryl

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    • I reread “To Kill a Mockingbird” a few years ago, after having just read it once in high school. I think I got even more from it now, as an adult with perhaps a little broader view on life, than I did then. No wonder it’s a classic.

      I’ve thought the same thing as you about “Catcher.” Curious as to how I’d react now. I actually found Holden Caulfield whiny when I read it in high school (blasphemy, I know!). So I wonder how I’d find him now.

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