More Thoughts on Rereading Books

Following up on our thoughts from yesterday (The Joys of Rereading) …

The Millions (“The Books We Come Back To”) discusses a very specific type of rereading: people who reread the same book, every year (“Faulkner read Don Quixote once a year, ‘the way some people read the Bible’”). Kind of a neat ideal for an annual ritual.

The New York Times (“Read It Again, Sam”) looks at rereading from the writer’s perspective: “Some authors reread as a kind of calisthenics”. And I actually like James Wood a little more now, knowing that he rereads To The Lighthouse every single year. And for some reason, I loved this detail from Sherman Alexie on Emilie Dickinson:

“Another writer who rereads to prepare for the day’s work is the poet and novelist Sherman Alexie, who admires Emily Dickinson so much he doesn’t just reread her — he physically retypes her poems.”

And The Telegraph (“Rereading old books ‘enhances the experience’”) shares some recent-although-not-quite-profound research on the possible cognitive benefits of the repeated, but different experience of rereading the same books —

“The repeated contact or reacquaintance resulted in a ‘renewed appreciation’ of the experience and even provided mental health benefits, it emerged. ‘Even though people are already familiar with the stories or the places, re-consuming brings new or renewed appreciation of both the object of consumption and their self,’ the research found.”

I could see an argument being made that there are different sorts of pleasures for the multiple reading experience. Knowing when a favorite part of a book is coming creates a sense of expectation that isn’t present the first time through.

The Guardian (“The pleasures of rereading”) refers to rereading as a sort of ‘time travel.’ And knowing what to expect from a story does provide a certain amount of security —

“Rereading is therapy, despite the accompanying dash of guilt, and I find it strange that not everybody does it. Why wouldn’t you go back to something good? I return to these novels for the same reason I return to beer, or blankets or best friends.”

And lastly, also from the Guardian, a lengthy list of authors weighing in on their motives for returning to the same books again and again: “Rereading: authors reveal their literary addictions

(Some of the highlights) —

  • “You have to reread — the surface amusements of plot, subject and mystery drop away, the deeper pleasures of prose and reflection stay.” — Philip Hensher
  • “Perhaps it is because novels are like affairs, and small novels — with fewer pages of plot to them — are affairs with less history, affairs that involved just a few glances across a dinner table or a single ride together, unspeaking, on a train, and therefore affairs still electric with potential, still heart-quickening, even after the passage of all these years.” — Mohsin Hamid
  • “I never set out to be well read but I did always want to be well reread. I scout around and I pay attention to what’s coming out, but being a good reader, I feel, is probably a bit like being a good family man: at some point you have to give up on promiscuity and just settle with the people you really love.” — Andrew O’Hagan
  • “The novel form is made for rereading. Novels are by their nature too long, too baggy, too full of things — you can’t hold them completely in your mind. This isn’t a flaw — it’s part of the novel’s richness: its length, multiplicity of aspects, and shapelessness resemble the length and shapelessness of life itself.” — Tessa Hadley


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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