Looking back through my lists of books read from the last year or so, I see some patterns. I’ve read Macbeth five or six times. I read my favorites of Eva Ibbotson’s adult novels (A Countess Below Stairs; Morning Gift) more times than my records show, because last summer I wasn’t recording rereads fully. I’ve been through the entire Vorkosigan Saga several times, which I really don’t have an excuse for — I only discovered those novels last year! I’ve reached for Harry Potter in times of physical stress (wisdom teeth removal; a stomach flu that wouldn’t go away experienced at a remove of 5000+ miles from home.) I’ve revisited books like Jane Eyre that, while certainly Great-with-the-big-almost-Adler-approved-G, aren’t even among my favorites. I went for some vacation rereads of a selected array of Tamora Pierce novels, much like I’ve done every year since I was ten. I’ve reread books almost back to back with the initial read. And the lists don’t even show the many, many times I revisited favorite or informative or otherwise familiar passages, chapters, sections, without reading the entire work.
This wasn’t remotely unusual for me. In fact, it was probably reigned in considerably by the fact that I spent most of the year in a foreign country, away from my home library. I reread books. I always have. When I was very small, before I knew how to read, I would beg my parents to reread the same books — not just the typical picture books, read until memorized, but longer works. I heard The Wizard of Oz several times before I managed to read it for myself at six or seven. Once I could read myself, I continued to reread incessantly. Part of this was feeding my voracious appetite for books in my childhood — even with the many trips to the bookstore and library, I could never keep myself in fresh reading material. But there was more to it. I loved revisiting familiar characters, language, and stories. I delighted in discovering something new about works I had already enjoyed. It wasn’t only the classics that held new treasures for each read, though oh, how those books did. It was never about memory — I often remember books I’ve read only once as well as those I’ve repeated my visits to. It was about the experience. You wouldn’t listen to a song you liked only once, I reasoned, would you? (We’ll save my habit of playing the exact same song 400 times on repeat on iTunes until I drive everyone around me absolutely insane another time. 😉 )
But there was something more to it. I reread some books until they almost fell apart. There were some books I read until they almost fell apart, surely having discovered any depths they contained. But the experience was still there. Reading them was — is — like visiting an old friend. Yes, it’s a cliche — Some of My Best Friends Were Books and all that. But for bookish children it’s a reality. Books could be, as I alluded to in my story of the last year, a source of great comfort for me. In elementary school, when I was sick but well enough to read, I read The Wizard of Oz. It was one of my absolute favorites and reading it again became a comforting little ritual. Rereading is, indeed, very comfortable.
Sometimes now I’m torn about rereading. For the most part, I don’t worry about rereading the classics (the Great Books, whatever you wish to call them.) You’re supposed to reread the classics. Calvino suggests that at a certain age, the classics become those books you only want to admit to rereading, not reading. While I think that might be more applicable in a certain European intellectual milieu than in general North American culture (by, you know, a lot) no one will really say there’s anything wrong with your rereading The Illiad or Hamlet a second time, unless they adequately steeped in anti-intellectualism to oppose reading those in the first time. Even then, I wonder about excess. It was great that I reread Macbeth a first time this year, making for two reads in my life, but rereading it six times, some of those only a few weeks apart? When I haven’t even really grappled with King Lear?
And the popular literature is harder to justify. Alright, I reread Harry Potter. Everyone does that in my generation. Even people I know who don’t like to read, went through the series twice. That’s an acceptable aberration to a general pattern of not rereading. But I’m not just rereading Harry Potter. I have a number of series I’ve reread many times, and even more individual books. Part of the reason I own so many books is precisely because I reread them, and I intend to reread them when I buy them. I would venture to say I’ve reread most of my collection. These books aren’t all Great or Good. But they provide me with something, and they can provide it more than once.
Ultimately, I suppose, I compromise. I do reread. But I keep an eye on it and, unless I’m in a foreign country without access to much English language literature in pre-Kindle days (hello Holy Mother Russia), I strive to strike a balance between reading new-to-me books and rereading. Because there is a very real way in which rereading means not discovering a new book, not reading something else, not creating those new favorites, and it’s not sustainable or desirable or practical. I have too many books I want to read not to read new works. But I also need my comfort, and benefit from my re-explorations, and I’ll keep doing that. I think the ratios work out, in the end. Sometimes I read only new books, as I discover the delights of a new library or get hooked on a new author or delve into a topic. Other times, I throw caution to the wind and reread without any guilt, because that’s what I need. Right now, I’ve been mostly reading new books, even though I’ve just returned home to my familiar collection, because there are so many things I want to read. (Well, not counting the airplane ride home. Or listening to the delightful Harry Potter audiobooks courtesy of Oxfordshire Overdrive.) But I have a medical procedure this morning and I know that when I get back this afternoon, if I’m up to reading anything, it’s going to be something old hat.
Any thoughts? Do you reread? Do you think I should reread less?