Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Re-Reading? Again?

Joan Wickersham
Writer, Reader, and Re-Reader

A few years ago, I decided that I would only re-read books because the old books were better and the new ones boring.

I soon came to my senses, and not only because I discovered David Mitchell, though that did help win me back over to new books.

But I do love re-reading, though when I was long ago 18 and started reading serious literature seriously -- and deeply enjoying it -- I couldn't imagine reading a book more than once. There were so many great novels to read, why waste time reading the same one again?

Joan Wickersham must have felt rather like me as a college freshman:
When I was 18, I became friends with a writer who was in his early 30s, and I asked him one day what he was reading. "Actually," he said, "I've gotten to the stage where I've started re-reading." Oh, dear, I thought, I guess he's run out of books. I felt a little sorry for him, and also alarmed by the notion that maybe there were only enough good books in the world to occupy me for another dozen years or so. Was my friend hinting that there comes a point when we're all stuck with reruns?
But she eventually changed her mind, and tells us why the rest of us do, too:
Now, more than three decades later, I know what he meant. You never run out of good books, but as much fun as it is to discover something new, one of life's great joys is re-reading: going back to a book for the second or third or fifth time, and seeing how it has deepened and expanded since your last visit.
How do books deepen and expand? We all know why:
The books change because we change. The great books get greater as we understand them better: reading them over and over, and knowing that we will never be finished.
This is true of the great books, which demonstrates why Ms. Wickersham that day titled her opinion piece "The joy of re-reading" (Boston Globe, January 25, 2013).

But not-so-great books also change because we change, only they contract, grow shallower, diminish -- like something from childhood that now seems small and childish, a sandbox after seeing the Sahara. No real joy there, just nostalgia . . .

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At 6:16 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Once upon a time, there was a 'rule' like this: Buy only books that you think you will re-read.

O tempora O mores!

At 6:37 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

For that rule to work, one needs the wisdom of a tradition and the existence of a canon.

Or good advice . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:47 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

. . . or "luck, that helps the braves" (Italian saying)

At 3:19 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No wonder the Braves played such good baseball . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:56 PM, Blogger Kate Marie said...


I have to thank you for talking about Mitchell on your blog. It was because of you that I discovered him, and Cloud Atlas has become one of my favorite books of the last fifty years. It's also just such a pleasure to read.

At 2:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

À votre service, Marie!

Jeffery Hodges

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