The Joys of Rereading

I have mixed feelings about rereading books. There is an undeniable pleasure in rereading personal favorites (it’s a small list of novels that I can and have reread again and again, and again). Part of the pleasure comes from the emotional residue of that earlier reading experience — remembering where you were, what you were doing, and (to some extent) who you were then. But on the other hand, the risk of rereading is that those fond memories will not be there, or worse — for me, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural was such a disappointment, after reading it again for the first time in 10–15 years.

On this topic, I’d like to get a copy of Patricia Meyer Spacks’ interesting book, On Rereading, which explores the questions behind our rereading habits —

“What pleasures does rereading bring? What psychological needs does it answer? What guilt does it induce when life is short and there are so many other things to do (and so many other books to read)? Rereading, Spacks discovers, helps us to make sense of ourselves. It brings us sharply in contact with how we, like the books we reread, have both changed and remained the same.”

I wonder — how is the experience of rereading a book different than re-viewing a favorite painting, or rewatching a favorite film? The New Yorker (“Are Rereadings Better Readings?”) picks up the conversation —

“Few would question looking at a great painting twice, or watching a favorite movie again and again. But, perhaps because rereading requires more of a commitment than giving something a second look, it is undertaken, as Spacks puts it, ‘in the face of guilt-inducing awareness of all the other books that you should have read at least once but haven’t.’ It engages, she fears in her darker moments, a ‘sinful self-indulgence.’ Never mind Nabokov, or Flaubert, who marvelled at ‘what a scholar one might be if one knew well only five or six books.’”

And here’s a gem from Vladimir Nabokov on the physical act of reading, and rereading:

“When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.”

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

tyler shores cambridge

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