The conundrum of re-reading
I gave in to an impulse this week to read something for a second time. I felt like I needed a break from all the new and an encounter with something familiar. I read Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty, two years ago when everyone was buzzing about it, and reviewed it favorably on this blog, but when it grabbed my attention again this week, I decided to have another go.
Given that this is a novel of suspense with an ultimate revelatory moment, you would think that re-reading it would fall flat…but it didn’t. It’s amazing to me how the mind will recall some things and (purposely?) shut others out. I remembered vaguely who died and when and why, but completely forgot the specific circumstances and immediate chain of events, so I got to be gobsmacked again, even though I knew it was coming! That scene is powerful—I read it a couple of times.
I know that there are people out there who never re-read, some because there are just too many new books coming down the pipeline to “waste your time” with one you have already consumed, and others because their reading consistently transfers into their long-term memory and they can’t imagine repeating an experience. I feel fortunate that although I do have a good memory for story, I am also able to be entertained by the nostalgic review of a narrative.
There are books that you will read once and, even if you liked them, never want to repeat. There are books that might stand up to one re-reading, both to confirm your liking for them and also to allow you to gather in the images and nuances you might have missed the first time when you were in a headlong rush to finish. And there are the books that become old friends, comfort zones, the recitation and repetition of a feeling you liked the first time and want to have again multiple times.
I will say that these criteria do shift and change over time. When I was in my teens, probably between ages 14 to 18, I was for some reason obsessed with Jane Eyre. I read the book conservative estimate about 15 times in that four-year period. About 10 years ago, prompted by helping a teen girl at the library find a classic off her Honors English list that she thought she could bear to read, I decided to make another visit to Thornfield Hall. I was dumfounded by my experience: What had I seen in this book that made me read it repeatedly and obsessively? I had to look back to the circumstances of my teen years to understand: I was a shy, quiet, romantic girl, with few friends and no dating experience, and my background as a fundamentalist Christian at that impressionable age guaranteed that the themes of sacrifice and self-denial (as represented both by Jane and by the sanctimonious St. John Rivers) would profoundly move me. Coming forward multiple decades to my current status as an agnostic self-supporting adult with a marriage and a tragic love story of my own behind me, I could clearly see that my obsession was uniquely tied to a particular iteration of my personality.
The criteria I use for whether a book remains in my personal collection is whether I think I might ever re-read it. If it’s a no, it goes. If it’s a yes—maybe once—I will keep it if it was a truly special experience (and if I have the shelf space) but otherwise rely on accessing it from the library when I want it. If it’s a yes, I can imagine enjoying this again and again, then it stays.
I’m happy to be the kind of reader who can appreciate all of these reading permutations.