The Benefits of Re-Reading (For Me)

ImageDon’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.


38 thoughts on “The Benefits of Re-Reading (For Me)

  1. You are not the only one who can take in only so much information in one go – I discover something new each time I reread certain of my favourite books. Another layer, another nuance, a character who is more complex than I remembered etc.

    1. That really is the beauty of re-reading, isn’t it, MarinaSofia? The very best books offer something new whenever you go back to them, probably because they are able to reflect the fact that you have changed as a person between reads.

  2. I’m like you – I like to re-read because I *know* I will pick up things I missed first time round. I read quickly and I usually want to find out what happens – so once I’ve done that on the first read, on the second I can pick up the subtleties!

    1. I’m not a particularly quick reader but I do read primarily for plot and so subtleties can pass me by if I don’t give a book a second chance.

  3. I find that not every book merits re-reading, but you don’t always know until you start whether you’re going to get anything new out of it or not. It’s bliss when you do though. When reading a series, I don’t return to the books to refresh me, instead I revisit my blog posts which saves a lot of time.

    1. I don’t post on every book I read, Annabel and often it is those series books where plot is foremost that I simply add to the list and then pass on. I agree, though, that if you have blogged about a book the very act of writing about it cements it more firmly in your memory.

  4. Oh Alex, you are a reader after my own heart. Back before I was 40 (or so) I never met a book worthy of a reread – but after I read The Satanic Verses (1999?) I couldn’t say that anymore. lol – I read the last lines of that incredible book, went “Huh?”, turned the thing over and started in again – how in the world did Rushdie get from point A to point C? – The second time I followed a more thematic thread and loved the whole thing – mongrels, we are, the whole bunch of us. I recently did the same thing with John Irving’s new one Avenue of Mysteries – there was so much noise the first reading that only in the last few chapters did it really click – I had to find out what that whole thing was about.

    Sometimes I read a book 3 or more times – these are rare – Underworld (DeLillo), Pale Fire (Nabokov), and most recently Americanah (Adichie).

    Why do I bother when I know how it ends? Because there’s more to a journey than the ending – the second time around I get to enjoy the scenery – a few more pieces of the literary elements. I don’t bother rereading genre crime – I know how that ends and the plot is usually the entire focus – (I enjoy genre crime with a good twisty plot though.)

    Second (or third or fourth), just like your experience, my reading groups pick books I’ve already read. Sometimes I reread and other times I don’t. Sometimes I go back just to review but then get sucked in and read the whole thing. Sometimes I’m not sure I remember as much as I’d like and go in for a reread. With book groups there might be two or three rereads in a month! (I’ve got 5 groups now, a couple with two books a month)

    Becky in California – currently rereading The Hare With the Amber Eyes – lol

    1. If it’s a reading group book I always re-read Becky, mainly because I lead all three groups and feel it’s incumbent on me to be able to pick up the discussion if the person who chose the book isn’t as confident as I am.
      I do love the idea that the journey is more important than the ending , though. It sums up exactly why I re-read on almost every occasion.

  5. I never used to re-read, because there seemed to be far too many good books still to read, but in recent years I have discovered its joys. It’s lovely to revisit characters and stories, and I’m also finding to interesting to see if my feelings about certain books have changed with age.

    1. That can be one of the dangers of re-reading, Jane. It can be distressing to discover that a book you had fond memories of no longer lives up to your first impressions.

  6. I don’t re-read all that often but I’m all for it in the right place. I used to tell students they must read Emma at least twice, to see how Austen placed the clues they will have missed the first time round. And when I’d finished Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, I went straight back to the beginning and began again — the structure cried out for it. I agree with all you and the other commentators said — just wish there was more time to do it more often.

    1. I had to read ‘Emma’ twice just to get to appreciate the fact that it was a good book. It was one of my A level texts and was ruined for me by appalling teaching. Even now while I can recognise that it is a wonderful piece of writing, I still don’t warm to it. I do agree though that with a well crafted novel a second read can open your eyes to miracles of the writers art you hadn’t noticed first time through.

  7. I re-read less often these days, but for all the reasons you mention. When re-reading fiction, it is almost always because I want to spend time with the characters; with Shakespeare, though, I just want the words. A professor once mentioned that he would highlight in a different color on each re-read (this was before the advent of ebooks). I do this with nonfiction and essays and find it very telling to see that what makes an impression on successive readings. I’ve also found that I don’t want to re-read ebooks. If it is a book that I think I might want to read again, I make sure I purchase one with pages. 🙂

    1. I think it was Helene Hanff who said that one of the reasons she loved second hand books was because she could sometimes see what had been important to other readers and either agree with or argue against the comments they had made in the books. I wonder what she would have made of your professor! And if she would have realised they were all by the same person?

  8. Rereading the classics usually pays dividends for me. First time around I see, to just read for the story but the second time I’m slowing down and thinking more about what I’m reading. Most contemporary fiction doesn’t have the same rereadibility factor for me ( with a few exceptions like Toibin and Jim Grace).

    1. Oh yes, I can re-read Toibin over and over and still find more, as well as wondering at the miracle of the way in which he has crafted a novel. Re-reading is certainly one way of assessing which contemporary novelists’ works are likely to become the classic of the future.

  9. I’m not against re-reading even though I rarely do it myself (I have my few favorites, like you said and equivalent of a blanket and a cup of tea, and the list rarely grows). I’m always torn whether I should re-read to get more out of a book, whether I should rush to the next book, because there’s so many. I definitely agree with you that second reading usually opens new perspectives, allows to take a step back from the story itself and appreciate the symbolic and formal devices used.

    1. It’s the perpetual dilemma for the reader, isn’t it? Get more out of one book or less out of two. Never mind the quality feel the width, as the old saying goes. I used to lecture in English Literature, which inevitably meant re-reading set texts. So, when I finished that job I reacted against that and stopped re-reading for a time. But as I get older I find I’m doing it more often. I must think about why that might be.

  10. I have always been a re-reader, I think partly for the pleasure of meeting old friends again, as you say. And I almost always find something new in a book, no matter how many times I have read it.

    The main criteria I use these days for deciding whether to keep a book on my shelves is whether I will want to re-read it, or if it would be worth re-reading. I have cleared a lot of books out over the past couple of years that I realized I haven’t re-read and probably won’t.

    1. Yes, that’s my main criteria as well, Lisa. As it becomes increasingly apparent that I am going to have to downsize at some point I have to have a way of winnowing the stacks and that it the one I’ve chosen

  11. At one college where I was teaching an introductory literature course, they had a “common book” that we were all supposed to have read over the summer. I loved this, not least because it gave me a chance to point out to my classes that this put them on a level with me in terms of discussing the book, because I had only read it once. I pointed out that everything else on the syllabus was there because I had re-read it multiple times, and that was part of why I had things to teach them about it.

    1. I always think I should reread rather more and I get angry with myself for always picking up new books that might be more distracting than giving real nourishment (whatever that might be!).

      1. I can fall into the distracting mode very easily too, Ian. It is rare that I re-read anything other than comfort reading unless it crops up for a book group. Yet, given how often that pays dividends perhaps I should do it more often.

    2. We started to do this at the University where I work around three years ago, Jeanne, although only once has it been a novel. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen much evidence that it has had an effect, mainly, I suspect, because there is no official forum for discussion. If the powers that be think the students are going to spontaneously start a book discussion in the bar in the middle of Freshers week then someone needs to disabuse them very quickly.

  12. One can’t deny the benefits of rereading that’s for sure. I enjoy rereading but it is always hard to choose to do it since my TBR list of books I haven’t read is so very long. That said, I have plans to reread Jane Eyre probably in March or April. I’ve read it twice before but it has been about 20 years since the last reading and I am looking forward to it immensely.

    1. Funnily enough’Jane Eyre’ is one of the books that I would never re-read by choice. The first time I read it Brontë’s language was so powerful I found myself speaking and writing in her cadences for days after. It shook me and so much as I love the book I have never gone back to it.

  13. >>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.

    So agree — and I think that very often, the more talented and thoughtful a writer is, the more they’ve into their books, and the more the books will repay rereading in the way you describe. I tend to tear through books for the story on the first go-round, which leaves me lots of space to discover new things on a reread.

    1. Yes, I read very much for the narrative line first time through too, Jenny and as you say, if it is a good writer there will be so much more than that to the novel.

  14. I been a re-reader since sixth grade when I read Watership Down three (maybe four) times in a row. I don’t understand why anyone would find re-reading strange when so many people watch the same television series over and over again. Don’t we all know someone who can quote Seinfield or Buffy or some Star Trek by heart. I confess, my pals and I went to the first Star Wars seven times back before any of use could drive and had to beg someone’s mom or dad for a ride to the next town where it was showing.

    1. I hadn’t thought about that James, but you are so right. I have box sets that come out every other year or so despite the fact that I know all the story lines off by heart.

  15. Rereading is better than reading! Loved reading about your moments with The Green Road. Yes, I always see so much more in a book the second time, though I don’t like rereading for book clubs. I know what you mean about the need to reread in fantasy series.

    1. Re-reading needs to be your choice, Liz and not something that is forced on you. It can be a problem where book groups are concerned but I so miss the discussion I used to have with my students when I was teaching literature that I have to look for a face to face substitute as well as enjoying a blogging life.

  16. I shall be 23 next Christmas but I started reading very young, encouraged by my parents. I read the French classics (as I am French) and others translated into French. Then I went to English literature in English and discovered a whole new world. Nevertheless, I re-read a lot. Ire-read Zola, and Balzac, and Flaubert, and Aragon, and Molière, and Homer, and Trollope, and Tolistoy, et al. ad lib. Every time I find new layers of meaning. Every time, I find new connections with other writers or other books. Re-reading enriches my first reading of new books. It is a whole bakgroud that stays wiith me, not an ephemeral world. I am with you with re-reading.
    By the way, I disover your blog and enjoy it. Really. 🙂

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