The Joy of Rereading Books

I’ve been blessed with the ability to read very quickly which enables my desire to plow through all the books I find interesting and those that are recommended to me. On the flip side, the pace at which I read means I rarely remember the details of a text beyond closing the back cover. That helps me sympathize with my students who do the assigned reading but have a hard time recalling what they’ve read.

This combination of quick reading and low recall means I get to enjoy rereading good books over the course of my life. Very frequently, I get significantly more out of a book on a reread than I did the first time and it’s in the balance of vague-remembering and rediscovery that the joy washes over me. I love that moment of dawning realization that is part recollection and part new insight.

One of my criteria for a good book is whether it is worth rereading. I encounter plenty of texts that I breeze through once, might even enjoy, but will never pick up again. Either the writing did not grip me, or there just was not enough depth to warrant another extended engagement. All the best works are ones that reveal themselves in all their glory only upon multiple readings, such that each is like a new layer, building upon the previous readings and showing a new angle or perspective.

Many of my favorite works are ones that I have lost count of the number of rereadings. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings certainly falls into this category with the intense Consolation present in his storytelling. Herbert’s Dune is very tricky to really grasp on just one reading (and I was gratified to see that the new film will also bear multiple viewings) and I have the hankering to reread Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo every few years, despite its length.

This is also true for many of the works in the curriculum of my classes. I will usually have read a text at least twice before I teach it and then I often need to reread them every few years as the details fade so that I can best guide students through their first reading. One reason I love reading plays out loud in class (aside from how it brings a text to life when students read the individual parts) is that I also get to reread. Each year, I get to encounter such wonderful plays as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Margaret Edson’s Wit, and Shakespeare’s King Lear. It reaffirms the worth of these texts that I see new meaning every time, even when it’s my ninth or tenth read. And then watching a film/stage adaptation gives my students the opportunity to also engage with the language of a text more than once.

Unfortunately, many of my students don’t get the experience of rereading a text. For that reason, one of the novels of choice options in my AP Literature class is that students may choose to reread a text that they haven’t read in at least a year. It will usually be a favorite text they studied in another English class, though sometimes students request a personal favorite that they’ve been meaning to reread and just haven’t had the time to (I of course have to make sure that it is one that they could use on the exam if an essay prompt is suitable).

Because a book is different when we come back to it at a different time in our lives. As a young adult, I necessarily identified far more with Paul Atreides than with Stilgar, (more with Sam and Frodo than Theoden). But now, I’m drawn to Stilgar’s steadfast leadership, (and to Theoden’s weight of responsibility). Further knowledge, life experience, and understanding help me to see texts and characters in a new light. I initially only felt the holy vengeance of Edmund Dantes and did not really see the beauty of the hopeful ending until my third reading of Monte Cristo.

And it’s a comfort to know those books will always be there. I enjoy discovering new authors, different styles of writing, new ways of telling stories. But there is also the comfortable familiarity of returning to a beloved text. I’ve recently begun a rereading of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which spans ten monstrous books. Far from seeming like a massive undertaking, it’s a joy in part because I know exactly what I’m getting into and I anticipate seeing so many details that I missed the first two times.

2 comments

  1. Karin Hennig-Häde · February 19

    Hey, Jens
    Matthias hat vorhin deinen Artikel:”I run because I’m skinny” entdeckt und gelesen, mir die Seite weitergeleitet und ich bin auf “Rereading Books” gestoßen. Wieviel Bücher ich schon wiedergelesen habe und immer etwas anderes entdeckt habe. Du beschreibst es mit Worten, in denen ich mich auch finde. Hehe, ist also nicht nur das Alter bei mir 😉
    Wie geht es dir und Emily? Pandemielage bei euch? Lockerung bei euch im privaten und schulischen Bereich?
    Ach, es gäbe soviel zu fragen!!!
    Im Mai treffen wir uns alle in Heinebach zu einem Familientreffen. Da freue ich mich schon sehr darauf, denn im Alltag und auf die Entfernung, wir dicht an den Niederlanden beheimatet, bleibt der Kontakt und Austausch etwas auf der Strecke…
    So, wir starten jetzt nach einem Sturm, in den Tag.
    Beste Grüße von Karin und Matthias

    • jmhieber · February 19

      Hey Karin,
      Uns geht’s sehr gut eigentlich. Pandemielage ist immer noch angespannt (omicron ist vor in paar Wochen in Malaysien angekommen) also haben wir oefters mehrere Klassen die von zuhause lernen. Aber es sieht besser aus als am anfang des Schuljahres (wir wahren August bis ende Oktober ganz online).
      Wir hoffen im Sommer nach Deutschland zu fliegen aber wissen noch nicht fuer wie lange und was dann alles moeglich ist.
      Viele gruesse an denn rest der Familie,
      Jens & Emy

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