On rereading

I wish I could tell you that I regularly revisit Proust. I wish I could tell you that I peruse Swann’s Way frequently and that I get reacquainted with Tolstoy, Joyce and Kafka every now and then. I really do. The truth is while I try and read as much as I possibly can and my book case is brimming with my recent purchases, very rarely do I revisit everything I read.

I feel like some context is necessary so let me backtrack a bit.

When I walk into the British Council in Colombo, the old hands at the library greet me like an old friend. I’ve been going there since I was 8. My ideal Saturday outing was a day at the library (I was easy to please). I would curl up in a beanbag in the children’s section and then went home and read some more. As a child, I used to be the kid who had a membership in four different libraries. I didn’t just read books, I ate them for breakfast. I lived in books. I conversed with characters.  My best friends were fictional. I stubbornly read in candle light in between the electricity outages which plagued us a few years back.   Somewhere down the line, life got in the way and books became a luxury instead of a necessity. The only books I read these days are the ones related to my academics.  My 12 year old self would be spectacularly disappointed.

I’ve made a conscious effort to get back on the reading bandwagon again and despite my growing ‘to be read’ pile (the age old lament of the bibliophile – so many books, so little time) I’ve noticed a tendency every now and then, to gravitate towards old favourites. The thing is, reading and rereading are two very different things. We all have our reasons for reading but why do some of us (I’ve met many people who refuse to revisit books) reread? Why, when there are so many undiscovered books waiting to be read and savoured, do we sometimes almost instinctively pick a well thumbed favourite in favour of a new one? And more, importantly what do we reread and what is it that keeps us coming back?

I can’t vouch for other re-readers, but it isn’t always literary merit which keeps me coming back to a book. Nostalgia plays a large part in my rereading. Old favourites include Enid Blyton’s Faraway tree series (the day you’re too old to climb an enchanted tree which leads to magical lands is a sad day), Agatha Christie’s Poirot books, Austen, the Narnia series, the dark materials and Sherlock Holmes.

Jean Webster’s 1912 novel ‘Daddy Long Legs’ has always been a firm favourite and was the initial book which kicked off my fascination for epistolary novels. Sometimes, revisiting old books and characters are bittersweet experiences. Over the years, you’ve changed and sometimes your interpretation of the novel may have changed. My most recent re-reading of the novel left me perturbed by the fact that Judy refers to her future love interest as ‘Daddy’ through the course of the novel but it probably won’t stop me from reaching out for it in a few months.

I’ve found that Roald Dhal improves with age. The older I get, the more I tend to marvel at his expansive imagination. A child who is gifted a chocolate factory, a boy who stumbles onto a witches’ conference and a woman who murders her husband and feeds the murder weapon to the police investigating the murder – You really can’t go wrong with Roald Dhal. I’m yet to reconcile myself to Quentin Blake’s illustrations though. I was a puritan with my illustrations and Blake’s scrawls left me feeling cheated as a child.

The Anne series (Oh, Walter, Walter, Walter) was also a favourite. As I reread them, I preferred the later books in the series – teenage Anne talked in such huge, chunky paragraphs, it got annoying sometimes. Her kids were far more interesting. Rushdie’s Haroun and the sea of stories, more of L.M. Montomery’s books, Grimm’s and Anderson’s fairytales , Harry Potter and Asterix are other frequent revisits. Asterix was another series which improved with age.

I grew up on a steady diet of gender centric, good-conduct fiction. I’m still guilty of glancing through them every now and then when I go home and am in need of a quick read. Rediscovering old poems is another favourite past time– Grace Nichols, Cummings, Dickinson, Neruda, Atwood, Bukowski, Wendy Cope, Plath, Agha Shahid Ali, Vivimarie Vanderpoorten, etc  are all old acquaintances.

Growing up, I was blessed enough to inherit a vast collection filled with books my family had amassed. With access to four more libraries, there was really no necessity to buy books either. Whatever few books I purchased were tried and tested before buying and carefully added to the library. When I started working, the hedonistic prospect of being able to spend my carefully earned money on books blew my mind. I started buying books a few years ago and I haven’t been able to stop.

While, there are few things more satisfying than a well-filled collection of books, what I’m uneasy about, is the initial conundrum mentioned previously – the fact that I don’t always revisit most of my recent purchases. Apart from Perec and one or two names, I haven’t been inspired enough to pick up and reread any of my recent reads which has me wondering if I’m reading the right books or if quantity has taken precedence over quality.

Do you reread books? If yes, which ones and if no, why not?

Ps: wrote this a few months ago.  Dug it up after coming across this post of PP’s and this recent article on authors and their rereads. With people rereading the great Gatsby, Proust and Toni Morrison, I feel a little ashamed to own up to the fact that I reread Enid Blyton and fairy tales.

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18 thoughts on “On rereading

  1. I re-read a newsweek from 1998 that has ended up near the PC quite frequently.

    Other than that, occasionally went back through American Gods, that’s about it. I’m not really much of a reader anymore either, so it doesn’t really count.

  2. I’m a nostalgic re-reader too. The only books I constantly reread are a 20 year old copy of the Blyton’s Rilloby Fair Mystery, and the Readers Digests dad has from 1960 onwards. Those are what I grew up on, Recent additions to the re-read list being the Potter books (yes, I know. cliche much) and The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke.

    They cheer me up. I very rarely re-read for depth or intelligence, if ever. It’s more for a pick me up, a relapse into familiar happiness

    I’m quite careful about buying books because I know I probably won’t get a lot of use out of them after the first read.

    • Huzzah! I’m not alone. I reread old Readers Digests too. The new ones are horrible in comparison. I’m exercising caution while buying books now as well. Every now and then, I binge on second hand books though.

  3. no, i don’t. i don’t want to be saturated by just few books. I’d rather jump into another world by reading another one.But I had reread Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (because it is my report), and Of Mice and Men.

  4. Yes. But a very, very, very few of them. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, first (as it has always been since I read it almost 6 years ago). Then, Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (well, the translated version). Finally, The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke.

    I’ve read Fight Club at least 20 times. There are others I’ve re-read, but very rarely. Not sure why I don’t re-read books generally, or why I do when it comes to those three specific books.

  5. I have reread very little, especially in the last few years. As my reading quota went up whatever re-reading went out of the window.

    Being short of matter to read of late I have skimmed some Terry Pratchett, usually worth re-reading, the second volume of Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography, and a couple of others but all without much enjoyment, perhaps I was not really in the mood.

    For those familiar with them, Kenneth Anderson’s books on the Indian jungles are endlessly re-readable, probably the only books I can claim to have read several times over.

    One author who I have also re-read a few times but whose charms have faded of late is James Herriot.

  6. I reread all the time. Like Dili says – that familar happiness feeling you get when you reread leaves me satisfied. My favourite books to reread include Just Friends, Fantastic Mr. Fox (my favourite Roald Dahl book), An Eq

  7. I rarely re-read books. the only exception i can think of is of a book titled “How things are” which i re-read twice (instead of studying – just a two months before my A/Ls – which i miraculously passed, thank you for asking)!
    Perhaps a part of me believes that everything i read somehow never leaves the mind – even htough i may not be able to recall any of it at will. I have trouble recalling the storyline of a movie i watched yesterday or a novel i am currently reading – all that my mind can hold is its present moment (and page number – if i have run out of bookmarks)
    Also, i think, what you read never really leaves you – in the sense that given your circumstances details about a book or story stick with you more than others and in a way, that’s what matters.
    Another problem i have is – i feel constrained by my finite time on Earth and any time spent re-reading is to lose out on a new adventure.
    Also, – and more critically – i am too lazy to re-read books.
    But your post made me poder the matter a bit deeper than i have. I have read enough books that would be well worth re-reading, perhaps like the need we feel from time to time, to rekindle old friendships, because one can never really appreciate a good book unless you have more than a casual acquaintance with it… like great friends, they too take time to understand, appreciate, unravel and discover.

    • 🙂 I think some of the authors in the Guardian article say the same thing. Some books really do need to be reread to be appreciated. The same goes with me for music. It takes a while for music to grow on me.

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