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Do You Reread?

Because increasingly, I don’t. And I feel sort of, I don’t know, bad about this. But then rereading itself also seems somehow indulgent, when my “to read” list grows ever longer, and I realize that I still haven’t gotten to books I intended to read a year ago. I don’t know what I feel so guilty about; it’s just me here, I’m an adult, I can do what I want, etc. But then–ah. It’s not just me, is it? The proliferation of lit-blogs and other sites devoted to reading have created a communal bookshelf, which thrills and delights, and also provokes, in me anyway, a kind of anxiety/hysteria. My to-read lists spawn to-read lists, prequels and sequels of themselves (“if you’re going to read ____, you should really start with x, and then read y“), and then I also often find that when the same book starts buzzing around the various sites I check in with, echoing here and there until it seems as though everyone has read it or is reading it, and I am reading about everybody’s reading of it, my stalwart resolve to sit down and read it myself intensifies and then combusts: the intention’s version of premature ejaculation. It’s like, instead of doing the honorable thing and having sex with the actual book, I masturbate to other people having sex with it. And with an already-unwieldy list to fret over, my appetite for said It-book diminishes, is falsely satisfied but satisfied enough. (And yes, it does a little make me feel dirty and confused.)

Exceptions are books written by friends. I tend to read those right away. And there are a rotating array of books/authors that I keep close by and consult, maybe not in full, but routinely. Especially when I’m trying to start something new.

Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity has been on my list for nearly two years. I have read the first twenty pages. Little, Big by John Crowley was on my list for even longer, and I finally finished it over the summer. It felt like a huge accomplishment.

Maybe there will come a year that I will declare The Year of the Already Read Already, where I will ceremoniously liberate myself from the shackles of new-or-new-to-me-works, and focus solely on rereading. Either books that I loved immediately, or books that I didn’t read carefully enough.

But imagine how behind I will be after such a year!

And it’s strange, because I was a chronic rereader as a child.

So I’m interested: do you reread? If so, what, and why? Do you feel any part of this conundrum?

40 thoughts on “Do You Reread?

  1. I do reread, but often – as you said – when I’m trying to start something new, and often for a particular reason. Like while struggling with the structure of a novel that moved back and forth between two time periods, I reread Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, to study how he moved fluidly between parallel plotlines. And I have a number of sentimental favorites that I first read in specific places, or are about those places, so reading them is a way to revisit when I can’t physically travel – George Mackay Brown’s stories of Orkney, for instance.

  2. Reading about reading as watching porn– definitely!

    I agree with everything you’re saying here, thanks for saying it. For me, rereading can be hard to make myself do.

    The one big exception is for teaching purposes. When I teach a story, novel, essay, or poem, it’s often something I’ve read before (maybe recently, maybe many moons ago). Even if I’ve never read it before, I always comb through it at least twice: once with an eye for enjoyment, and once with an eye for transmuting it into a discussion.

    I’ve found this kind of rereading to be delightful and rewarding. New layers reveal themselves; the work speaks in different ways to different current events/classroom chemistries.

    Is a lively discussion about a work a kind of “rereading”? It feels that way, sometimes.

    One last thing: because I don’t use bookmarks, I usually reread everytime I pick the book back up. Does that count? Sometimes I have to hop back five, ten, twenty pages (depending on how long it’s been since I last read).

  3. There’s something both overwhelming and undeniably pleasurable about rereading a book. How that writer’s voice swims in your head, how you fall into their rhythms, how, as you inhabit the book, it inhabits you. It’s a feeling that I enjoy having.

    That said, it’s incredibly rare for me to read anything twice. I’ve read over a hundred books this year, and I think one, or maybe two, were rereads. Re: rereading: it may be the only thing I am jealous about college professors. I remember hearing Samuel Delany say that he’d read Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood over 30 times! I’ve read it once. And I don’t think I’ve read anything that many times.

    And, like you, I struggle with my ever-proliferating book lists. It’s nutty.

    I have a musician friend who, after discovering a music album that he likes, will listen to it incessantly, and I’ve noticed how similar motifs, textures, and melodies, begin to organically appear in his own music. I often wonder if obsessive rereading will have that effect on me. For instance, wouldn’t it be great if, after rereading The Waves thirty times, I could absorb Woolf’s swirling lyricism into my head?

  4. Kristen,

    This is an important question. I have found that I get more out of rereading. And I mean I get more on a writerly level than as a reader. I see the whole construction better. The plot, the narrative, the sentences. It is the best way for me to learn how to write effectively.

    I reread the novels and stories that have made something above emotion spill out of me. Desperate Characters – Paula Fox, Blood Meridian. Housekeeping. ‘Pet’ by Deb Olin Unferth. ‘The Fifty’ by Scott Garson in the last NY Tyrant. Alice Munro stories. I’ve read these works out loud to people too and that is a fantastic experience. We laugh, sometimes cry. In the case of the novels, the sweep is greater because usually it takes a few months to get through 300 pages. Even the action scenes come through differently. The shootout with the Judge near the end gets stretched out.

    I think about our ancestors telling stories. That need has been with us so long. The damn thing is it’s so hard to get people to listen for that long. Maybe our brains are changing with the whole multitasking.

    Rereading. I do feel the pull of the new stuff, but I can’t help falling back ever so often because that other material feels so true when it curls around my brain. I want to deal with it because it’s making me a better writer and hopefully a better person.

    1. I just finished Desperate Characters on Sunday and have already made plans to re-read it over my holiday break.

      Nice call.

      Which leads me to my larger point: A book like DC is almost impossible to fully comprehend on the first go-round. The themes are so tightly overlapped that they don’t become apparent until they’ve double, tripled, quadrupled in the text (think about the chicken livers being served to the cat–it’s only until you re-read the opening passages that the livers take on a new meaning).

      Authors that work hard to layer their texts deserve to have those texts re-read. It’s not enough to just read a book like DC once and then move on. But I guess that’s assuming we all have unlimited time and no day-jobs to hold down.

      Nabokov once said something along the lines of “if only we ever read and studied 10 books, what scholars we’d be.” Sometimes I’m inclined to agree with that. I’ve read Crime and Punishment 4 times, and it gets better every time.

  5. After a similar conversation recently, I resolved to create a re-read stack, and to re-read a book for every ten new books I read. Sounds inorganic, I know, but I like a little structure.

  6. Oh, I forgot to mention that I often reread passages from books that I’m reviewing, and also skimming through sections to reacquaint myself with how the novel or story is constructed.

  7. For me, re-reading IS reading. Or at least the kind of reading that I most enjoy doing–something like what Reuben Brower calls “reading in slow motion.” Anything else I would call “checking out” or “browsing.” But I suppose there are many, many forms of reading. Has anyone done a good typology of reading practices?

    This discussion reminds me of when Whitman says “read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life” in the Preface to his Leaves of Grass.

  8. I do re-read, there are a a handful of books that I re-read every year. These books almost ground me and remind me why I enjoy reading. I find the growing list of books to read to drag me down after some time, and even though many of the books are enjoyed I get into the habit of just reading to…well read and get that list down.

    So I curse that list from time to time and pull out one of the anchor books. This year two books I read I reread the minute I finished them. I had to.

    1. This is how I do it too. There are a few books I read almost every year (Jesus’s Son, Homeland, etc.), and a few that are always near my desk. This year I also read Robert Lopez’s KAMBY BALONGO MEAN RIVER at least twice, and more with skimming. I wrote a long essay about the book, so that was part of the reason, but it’s also just a text that’s rewarding to see again from the beginning after you understand more about how it works.

      One other thing I do: I often listen to the audiobooks of books I’ve already read, or read books I’ve listened to. It’s a nice way to have a new experience that is also slightly familiar, as both ways of entering the text are a bit different.

      1. (mild spoiler below)

        I loved the language in Kamby Bolongo, but had mixed feelings about the timing and delivery of the revelation re: brain injury. It threw me out of the text a bit. I’m still trying to figure out why, since everybody else has loved this book. I think it might be because it made me ask a lot of questions I wouldn’t have asked otherwise about whether the text was an “accurate” representation of a particular disability. Where is your essay appearing? I should read it.

      2. I just reread Jesus’s Son. But I read the stories in a different order. Rereading allows me the freedom to jump around in a text.

  9. I know ‘Emergency’ always gets anthologized but I vote for ‘The Other Man’ or ‘Two Men.’ I wish you were in NYC Matt, tonight Sam L. is reading, tomorrow Robert L. at Cakeshop 7pm. If anyone wants to meet up. Email me.

  10. Definitely re-read, but I would say for a few different reasons …

    1 – the book is grounding and a great reminder of something that is important to me; something I want to be more of; etc. Example: A Prayer for Owen Meany.

    2 – It is an Edward Abbey (or any other favorite who is dead). I’ve already read all of his stuff many times, and well, I miss him, So I grab one of his books. Example: Desert Solitaire.

    3 – A book that was written so well that you know you did not catch everything you should have the first time around.

  11. I reread books I love for comfort when I’m feeling anxious or depressed or sick or just off-kilter. My mother, who is a librarian, has shamed me for this since I was a kid. She keeps a database of all the books she reads so that she doesn’t accidentally pick up something she read 10 years before and read it again, without realizing that she had already read it. Seriously — even if she no longer remembers the book, and can finish the whole thing without triggering a niggling “have I read this before?”, she will be very angry if she realizes she’s just read something she’s read before.

    She’s the same way about movies with one exception: Betelgeuse.

  12. I’ve been focusing on re-reading more recently. I often re-read to teach, and when I want to write about something. I like to re-read with a pencil. I find re-reading to be more of a creative endeavor than reading – I’m often creating something in response.

    I re-read comics often in a deconstructionist mode to figure out how I’m going to create my own. While I work on my comic pages – especially as I’m planning them, I spend a lot of time re-reading. I do this far less often when I’m writing prose those. The formal and structural demands are perhaps greater with comics and the deconstruction of these elements are probably more obvious and therefore more practical in creating your own work.

  13. michael leong: the first sentence of your comment, did you mean to say “reading is re-reading”? apologies if not. but if so, i wholeheartedly agree–


    woods: reading as creative act, absolutely, yes, always.

    1. Yeah, Kristen– I wanted to willfully conflating “read” in the sense of “interpret” (what Nabokov means by using the mind, brain, and tingling spine upon the text) and “read” in the sense of “moving our eyes from left to right.” For example, I read a couple of Faulkner novels very quickly for my comprehensive exams but I wouldn’t say that I’ve “read” Faulkner…

      I like how Nabokov, in the quote that John posted below, inserts the act of reading into a temporal process but, on second thought, I’m a bit uncomfortable how he wants to skip so quickly over the process of the eye engaging the page to the mind appreciating the text. I was thinking of something Donald Davie said about Pound’s Cantos:

      “Indeed, ‘reading’ is an unsatisfactory word for what the eye does as it resentfully labors over and among these blocks of dusty historical debris.”

      Davie is obviously being derogatory here but one thing that I like about Pound’s poem is the heterogenous texture of the surface– the way Pound re-conceptualizes the initial act of reading as something more than just “moving our eyes from left to right”– it requires a much more “complicated physical work upon the book” (to use N.’s phrase again) and no doubt many will be resentful about this process…

      Some more Whitman (from Democratic Vistas):

      “…the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in the highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem.”

      1. From Nabokov’s “Good Readers and Good Writers”:

        Incidentally, I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. 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 a 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. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement. A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.

            1. thanks for that clarification, john. i misquoted. but you got the gist. rereading is the only way. what do we get from reading once? (i have to admit though, i don’t reread THAT much. i wish i had more time to reread, to REALLY read.)

  14. Boy am I late to the party on this one. But just to weigh in, I reread all the time. I think I prefer it, as, on rereads, I read for other reasons. First reads are for plot? Subsequent reads are for more fully enjoying and appreciating language and pacing and things of that “crafty” sort. Why am I on here? I should be doing something.

    1. Hi Lee,

      I know what you mean about lists getting longer and longer, the impossibility, short of immortality, of ever reading everything on them.

      So what sorts of books do you find yourself (re)reading?

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