In Defense of Not Rereading

In Defense of Not Rereading - Photo by Lleven Van Melckebeke

Stuttgart Library by Lieven Van Melckebeke via Creative Commons
A guest post by Maggie Libby Davis

In a class a few semesters ago, our professor asked the timeless and, in my mind, answerless question: “What is your favorite book?” I don’t want to name a favorite. My favorite book today might change tomorrow, and what if I haven’t read my favorite book yet? It’s too much pressure. My professor pushed for an answer, offering at she thought was a lifeline with, “What book do you reread, over and over, just because you must, because your mind demands to hear the story again?”

Reread? Was she crazy? Who had time to reread when there were so many still to read the first time? Don’t misunderstand: I’ve read books multiple times. Dr. Seuss books, Judy Blume books, Lucy Maud Montgomery books. But in my adult reading career? No.

Ultimately I answered because I had to with All Quiet on the Western Front. And, while at the time, it was one of my favorites, I felt like a fraud and a disloyal friend to all the books I had and hadn’t yet read.

That said, the seed was planted. I contemplated books I might read again, just to re-live those moments. I started with Cat’s Cradle. To my professor’s credit, I enjoyed it the second time as much as the first.

I decided to try All Quiet on the Western Front, a book I’d read in high school. The story was as compelling as the first time, but the magic, the transformation I felt in the first read, was missing in the second read.

I tried again with Henderson the Rain King, a book I’d read in college, a book that delighted me, engaged me, made me read Herzog and Humbolt’s Gift. I hadn’t read any Bellow since graduating twenty years ago, so here was my chance. I picked up Henderson ready to be whisked off to Africa with him, but I couldn’t even get to the point in the story where he actually goes to Africa before putting the book down in frustration.  How could this happen?

I blame it on two things. First is timing. With All Quiet, I was a child, inexperienced, almost like Paul Bäumer, and reading his story exposed me to a view I hadn’t seen in my military family life. As an adult, All Quiet could no longer conjure that flash of understanding while marching so beautifully to a destination once unknown.

The second reason a rereading can fail is our tendency to romanticize the past. In college, I loved the eloquent ramblings of Henderson. I remembered this as a joyful manner of distraction, a playful darting about the story. When I tried to reread it, I kept thinking, “Enough already with this overindulgent hot air.” And that’s a shame (and apologies to Bellow fans). The pleasure I derived the first time was not only unfulfilled in the second attempt, it was also tarnished.

I understand that multiple readings can bring to light subtle details previously missed or bring depth to the plot or allow for a deeper understanding of behavior or symbols. I know this, which is why I reread stories in workshop multiple times. Rereading may be the way to mine the beauty of a story, but then again it may not. Only the individual can decide if the risk of losing the magic is worth it when there are so many wonderful books to be read for the first time. Tread cautiously, dear reader.

 

Maggie Libby Davis spends her days accounting and spends her nights pursuing her MFA at Old Dominion University. It isn’t hard to imagine which one she enjoys more.

This article was first published on the Barely South blog; reproduced with permission.

Barely South Review is based based at Old Dominion University in Virginia, USA. The editors are accepting submissions of non-fiction, poetry, fiction, and art for its Spring issue until 30 November.


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7 Comments

  1. 28 October 2015 / 8:54 am

    Very thought provoking article for anyone who loves to read.

    I will add a third excuse for (possibly) not rereading a previous book. As we grow to enjoy more and more writers and how they weave any story, or subject (if nonfiction) we find our tastes change on the delivery of a written work.

  2. 28 October 2015 / 9:29 am

    Loved this. I am right there with you.

  3. Loretta
    28 October 2015 / 10:21 am

    I think you offered, in part, a very plausible reason for a book not evoking the feelings we had initially. We come to the read with memories, but, after experiencing life, our views change over time. I do reread books once in a while, but not often. Like you, there are so many still waiting, I’m always tempted to move forward, not back…

  4. 28 October 2015 / 8:18 pm

    Great post. As you and the other commenter so far say, we grow and change as time passes and so does our taste in reading. I don’t have any desire to reread. Like you I feel there are so many new read awaiting. However, last summer I reread a favourite from my youth – The Scarlet Pimpernel. This was in order to prepare for a workshop at a book festival. I was so disappointed second time around. It was way too wordy and lumbering for my and perhaps modern tastes in general.
    Thanks for getting me thinking.

  5. 29 October 2015 / 4:18 am

    Great post, Maggie. I think rereading is hard because your feelings can change so much – as you said, we can romanticize the past. At university I studied some books I’d already read, but suddenly hated them when we had to pick them apart in class (particularly true for a Children’s Literature module – we suddenly had to read way too much into childhood favourites!). I also have a huge fear of re-reading one of my favourite books and finding it doesn’t have the same effect on me anymore. However, the same thing rarely happens when watching films the second/third/fourth time around.

  6. 30 October 2015 / 12:57 am

    I have read and re read, and re read many times some of my books. I love them and the stories they tell so much. I do not think it a waste of time to immerse oneself in happy moments.
    Evelyn

  7. Meghan
    7 March 2017 / 3:53 am

    Forgive the comment on the old post, but I came across this looking for something else and had a very similar experience recently when I picked up Herzog for a reread. I think with Bellow it reads very affected now because so many people have imitated him? When I read it for the first time, in my early 20s, I hadn’t read nearly as much as I have read twenty years later. Still, when he’s good he’s still *amazing*–obviously. No one can touch that “slabs of meat” passage in Humboldt’s Gift. The good thing about discovering your old favorite isn’t your favorite is you realize you have changed. I don’t think it takes away from my love of Bellow at all. It led me to Roth, and from Roth to Céline, and on and on.

    And besides you will have a different experience with different books. I have read Scarlet Letter probably eight times, at different points in my life and I read it differently every time. It only gets better. I am about to re-read Moby Dick. I have read Lucia Berlin’s story collection twice through in the last year, and some stories I have read ten times, one more than twenty.

    I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an accomplished novelist who doesn’t re-read. It’s one of the best ways there is to figure out what makes something you love work. (Though, with Berlin, she is so good that I still can detect it.)

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