Don’t worry, this is not going to be another post asking you to come down on one side or other of the re-reading divide. I have taken part in far too many discussions on the subject not to have realised by now that readers either do enjoy re-reading or they don’t and that you are certainly never going to persuade those that don’t of any merit in the practice. No, this is a memo to myself about what I am beginning to see as the benefits for this one particular reader of being put in a position where re-reading is necessary. If you have anything to add, then that would be great, but don’t worry if the whole concept of picking up a book for a second time is an anathema to you; just click onto another post.
I am a re-reader so I quite often find myself re-reading books that are one of a series out of choice. There are, I think, two main reasons for this. Firstly, with a year or two or, more crucially, a hundred books or two, between a new novel and the last, I often feel the need to remind myself of where the previous episode in the story left off. This is true not only of three volume fantasy epics but also much longer police procedural series where in theory each book should stand alone. Often in the case of the latter, while the main plot line is separate in each book, there is an on-going subplot that runs throughout the series and before I embark on any new adventure I need to recall just where I left all the characters at the end of the last.
The second reason I find myself re-reading these novels is also to do with the characters. I like them; I enjoy spending time with them; I wouldn’t go back for another in the series if I didn’t. And, when I’m tired or unwell or simply having one of those days, picking up a book which features a much loved friend is overwhelmingly comforting. Of course, the same can be said of those that people one-off stories, but almost inevitably when I want a book that is going to do the equivalent of wrapping me up in a cosy blanket with a large pot of tea and persuading me that all is well with the world really then it is a previously read series book to which I return.
However, having admitted to being, at times, a re-reader by choice, it is also true to say that I have been known to complain about the number of occasions when I find myself being put into the position of having to re-read a book simply because it has been selected by one or other of my book groups. Once or twice a year wouldn’t be so bad, but very often it is as frequently as once a month. In January two of the three choices fell into that category. The first February selection was another such. I read Anne Enright’s The Green Road when it was published last year and although I thought it an extremely good book it wasn’t top of my list of novels that I wanted to revisit. However, having had the opportunity to explore it a second time, knowing what was going to happen and therefore able to pay more attention to other aspects of the work, I am forced to admit that re-reading can very often pay real dividends when it comes to appreciating the nuances of a writer’s intentions.
In respect of The Green Road what I found myself doing was making sense of the book not simply as the story of one particular Irish family but rather as the ongoing narrative of the Irish nation as a whole. What triggered this was the fact that this time round I picked up on the repetition of the song O My Dark Rosaleen. During the nineteenth century, when expressions of nationalism were forbidden in Ireland, this was used as a means of making a covert patriotic statement and it is still the case that the Rosaleen of the lyric is seen as referring to the country as a whole every bit as much as it is thought to be about a single individual. I knew this when I read the book the first time, but I was so busy trying to keep the characters and the action straight in my mind that I simply didn’t pick up on it. At a second time of asking, however, I had more attention to spare for the detail and suddenly the whole book opened up for me with Enright’s mother figure, Rosaleen, becoming not only the prism through which the behaviour of the Madigan family is understood, but also a symbolic representation of the country itself and the equivocal relationship maintained between the land and its people.
If I’m honest I have to admit that it isn’t the first time that something like this has happened. Maybe I should train myself to read more carefully the first time round, but being a Bear of Very Little Brain I’m afraid that I can only take in so much information at one go. So, I must settle for recognising that, however much I complain about the fact, sometimes being asked to read a book a second time around is going to pay substantial dividends.