My husband knows almost every line from The Blues Brothers. And nothing would make him happier than to watch it again. I, on the other hand, hate watching a movie that I’ve already seen. No matter how much I liked it the first time, it pains me to waste time I could be spending more productively (like watching another movie) on watching one which has an ending which I already know.
It is the same with books. I have very rarely reread a book, and only then, when it has been so long since the first time I read it that I cannot remember its story line. Even then, I can’t help but mourn the new book that I could be reading. After all, there are so many wonderful books just waiting to be plucked from the bookshelf or added to my shopping cart.
My feeling about rereading books is akin to writer Nick Hornby’s, who said: “I don’t reread books very often; I’m too conscious of both my ignorance and my mortality.”
Yes, I want to gather and devour all of the books I can before I die, even if that means skimming over multi-layered brilliance and tasting a mere morsel of genius.
But it is a children’s series that has given me cause to reevaluate my approach to rereading. I have been introducing my children to the Faraway Tree series, and in doing so, I have been getting an inkling of what I have been missing by reading books just once. Not only have I been getting a buzz out of the experience of sharing these stories with my children, I have also enjoyed the nostalgia of jogging almost three decade-old memories. I wonder whether I have been missing out on this sense of familiarity and comfort by avoiding rereading my favourite books and re-watching my favourite movies.
Writer William Golding believes books should be read more than once, and not just for the entertainment and nostalgia. He says:
“I do like people to read the books twice, because I write my novels about ideas which concern me deeply and I think are important, and therefore I want people to take them seriously. And to read it twice of course is taking it seriously.”
I am in no doubt that I am missing important subtleties by reading a book just once. In particular, last year I steeled myself to read William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. If you ask me what happened in this book, I’m not sure that I could tell you. Reading it was like trying to decipher a code, and by the end of it, I was exhausted and not at all certain I had understood any of it. I vowed I would read it again, but found myself reluctant to delve back in, although I know it warrants at least one more read, and probably many more. In my reluctance, I feel I’m missing out on the wisdom and poetry of one of the world’s greatest ever novelists. And still, I procrastinate, beginning another new novel, and then another.
In this, I find myself committing the very crime that CS Lewis described: “An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only… We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.”
And isn’t this tendency to move on to the next, newest, shiniest thing, instead of fully appreciating what we have, a weakness of our time?
We read a newspaper headline and the first few paragraphs to get the general gist of the story, without bothering to delve any deeper. The CNBC news agency in the US revealed half of the readers of its website opted out after the first three paragraphs, while the Washington Post claimed most Americans merely read the headline of news stories.
Politicians feed us lines that they continually regurgitate, as we, their audiences, are unwilling to look any more deeply into their policies.
We use social media to let our friends know how we are feeling or what we are doing with one-line updates and communicate what we think about the big issues in 140 characters or less.
And so it is unsurprising that when it comes to reading more deeply and pondering the same words twice, I am reluctant.
Literary theorist Roland Barthes described the problem decades ago, saying that rereading was “an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society, which would have us ‘throw away’ the story once it has been consumed (‘devoured’), so that we can then move on to another story, buy another book.”
I have to admit that on the rare occasions I have reread a book, I have never regretted it. Returning to The Great Gatsby long after I had studied it as a school text made me see the story in an entirely different light. I was older, (hopefully) more mature, and had more experiences to bring to the novel. It was the same with The Catcher in the Rye and Slaughterhouse 5 — if anything, I enjoyed my experience of reading these books the second time more than the first. I wasn’t racing to find out what happened to the protagonist in the end, so I had the time and patience to enjoy the language and ideas within the stories, rather than just following the plot. I have realised that you never really read a great book the first time around. And what is the point of reading so many books that you can barely remember what happened in any of them?
So it is time to stop, go back and reread my favourite books. I need to remind myself that I don’t have to tackle the unread books on my bookshelf like a marathon that needs to be completed. I have to resign myself to the sad but inevitable fact that I will never get through all of the books that I want to read. But at least I can properly read the ones that I do. Because, who knows what treasures I have missed in my haste to find out what happened in the end? Books that are on my ‘must reread’ list
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
- Beloved, Toni Morrison
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
- One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera