This weekend’s New York Times Book Review has a great back-page essay, “Read It Again, Sam“, about the experience of re-reading favorite books and authors. The whole essay is well worth the read, but here’s a taste:
In her recently published “On Rereading,” the retired English professor Patricia Meyer Spacks cites a friend who “claimed that she hated to reread. When I pointed out that I have known her to reread Jane Austen, she looked surprised. ‘Everyone rereads Jane Austen.’ ” (Everyone who reads her in the first place, maybe: Stephen King said in his e-mail that “I have never read a single word of Jane Austen.”)
Many authors also return regularly to Virginia Woolf. The novelist and critic Dale Peck tries to read “The Waves” every year. “It affects me like spiritual instruction,” he said. “I always feel like a better person after I put it down.” The New Yorker critic James Wood rereads “To the Lighthouse” annually: “It’s a joy to return to, perpetually rich, perpetually moving.” And the novelist Sophie Gee revisits “Mrs. Dalloway” when she can: “The magnificence of the writing is so overwhelming. Clarissa Dalloway has a realness for me that no other heroine quite matches.”
Of course, re-reading isn’t a guarantee you’ll fall in love with a former favorite all over again:
Like any reader, writers may discover after rereading that a book has transformed from a sexy college date into a louse. “I remembered loving Henry James’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’ when I studied it for my Ph.D. comps,” Bharati Mukherjee said. “This summer I tried to reread it. I soon abandoned the book, screaming, ‘Enough complex interiority, just give me a couple of big head-butting scenes!’ ”
I read Gone With the Wind many times as a tween and then re-read it as an adult. It’s still good entertainment…if you can ignore the reek of bigoted stereotypes, white privilege, and historical revisionism. But another tween favorite, DuMaurier’s Rebecca, was darker and more troubling when read through an adult feminist lens, but it’s also richer and more suggestive and had me completely rethinking the author’s intent.
My favorite recent re-read is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. I loved it the first time around, but it benefits from slow reading and then a second reading; it’s not an especially long book, but it’s packed with imagery and emotion. Ditto Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is long and also dense with imagery. On re-reading I didn’t get the pop of surprise when I encountered the more fantastical moments, but I got to unravel their meaning and connect them to one another in ways that I didn’t the first time around.
What’s your favorite re-read? Is there any book you wish you hadn’t re-read? Share in the comments…