I imagine you have book shelves in your home, and I imagine these are lined with books. ‘Keepers’ – books that moved you or inspired you or informed you sufficiently that you felt you wanted to keep them close.
Question: do you keep these books on the shelves because they are beautiful mementos of a wonderful reading experience? Or do you intend to read them again someday?
I hope your answer is the latter, because there is a great deal to be said for rereading books.
‘So many books, so little time’ is a common reason for always seeking a new book to read. We can feel compelled to chase the new with a sense of urgency; we can feel life should be about new experiences, new discoveries, not retracing our footsteps.
But in fact there are new experiences and discoveries to be made in books we have already read. These may actually be the most profound ones; a second or third reading of a book may be where your understanding deepens and you see important meanings that eluded you before.
In his Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov explained the importance of rereading:
I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement. A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.
Just think: you don’t have to understand and appreciate every aspect of a book upon first reading it; you may even be incapable of doing so. The book will continue to give to you each time you return to it, and you will come to ‘[take] in the whole picture and then… enjoy its details’.
If time passes between each reading of a book, then your experiences will likely be quite different. When you reread a book, you are in a different place physically, mentally and emotionally. Though the words remain the same, they carry different meanings for you. Dr Judith Seaboyer, former senior lecturer in literary studies at the University of Queensland, said:
‘You [might] remember that you really loved reading Austen. It’s interesting to be thinking as you read … now that I’m older and wiser, am I seeing any of this any differently than I did when I was 18?’ (source)
How many times have I read my favourite book, The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye? So many, and yet each read is rewarding for me; with each read I notice something new, or notice that I am experiencing something in a new way.
The English author Jane Austen wrote six major novels in her lifetime (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion). To this day many people enjoy these novels, and there are even societies for Austen fans around the world. To be a fan, of course, is to read and then reread. One reader, Ruth Wilson, found that rereading Austen in her sixties and then again in her seventies was transformative for her. She writes:
Thanks to rereading Austen I have experienced a rejuvenation of spirit and energy… I find that the processes of rereading, investigation and reflection have led me to the best time in my life. (source)
‘Of course,’ continues Ms Wilson, ‘to be worth rereading, novels must have the potential to yield new insights, personally and culturally.’ Not every book will draw you in for a second or third read. But those books that light a spark in you… those are worth returning to, certainly.
Not only do books such as these have the power to be transformative, but they can be wonderfully comforting. ‘Books are the quietest and most constant of friends,’ as Harvard president Charles W. Eliot put it; or in the words of Ernest Hemingway, ‘There is no friend as loyal as a book.’ Returning to a book you read and loved is like wrapping yourself up in a blanket, warm and comfortable.
I wonder, what are your ‘book friends’? Which books do you return to over and over, and how do they inspire you each time? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Picture credits: 1) wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock; 2) Ben White/Unsplash.