rereading books (1)

I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire ever to read at all…. When I take up a work that I have read before (the oftener the better) I know what I have to expect. The satisfaction is not lessened by being anticipated. When the entertainment is altogether new, I sit down to it as I should to a strange dish, – turn and pick out a bit here and there, and am in doubt what to think of the composition….

Besides, in thus turning to a well-known author, there is not only an assurance that my time will not be thrown away, or my palate nauseated with the most insipid or vilest trash, – but I shake hands with, and look an old, tried, and valued friend in the face, – compare notes, and chat the hours away. It is true, we form dear friendships with such ideal guests – dearer, alas! and more lasting, than those with our most intimate acquaintance.

William Hazlitt, ‘On reading old books’ (1817).

Still, if the writing doesn’t change, we do. We reread, sometimes, to test ourselves, to see who we’ve become. There are writers we tried too young…. Reading’s so invisible an art, we forget that we’ve gotten better at it. Books still baffle us occasionally, but not nearly so often, and there are reasons for this bafflement – we’re in a bum frame of mind, or the book’s too technical for someone with our background, or maybe it’s just written badly. In short, we’ve learned specific tricks, as well, how to adjust our reading style to the oages at hand. We slow-dance with some, others we ride like breaking waves. A few we don’t go near without protective gear. It wasn’t until I was loose in that no-man’s land after college that two of the more blindingly obvious illuminations struck me: That I couldn’t read EVERY book (and could leave off torturing myself). And that, life being short, I could just plain quit a book if I wanted. Blasphemy!

David Long, ‘On rereading’ (1987).

Unfortunately there was the problem that even if you read everything, you don’t read it as the same person. When he first read The Iliad, the opening was just the opening: an explanation. The anger of Achilles: people always thought it referred to Achilles’ rage at losing his favourite slave-girl or his sidekick Patroclus.

When he had read it first at eleven, he hadn’t read it. At seventeen when he reapplied it was beginning to come into focus. Yet only when he was thirty and he had been stuck in a lift, and had gone in for the third time had the meaning dripped through like portly raindrops infiltrating a roof.

Tibor Fischer, ‘Bookcruncher’ (2001).

There you have it. Three different perspectives from three different centuries, on the subject of rereading. Which is the one closest to yours, I wonder.

And if you are not opposed to the habit of rereading, which would be the books that you are most likely to return to most often? Or rather, what is the book you are most wanting to reread right now? 



7 thoughts on “Friday Feature: On Rereading

  1. I haven’t re-read anything for absolutely ages – my TBR pile keeps on growing! There are still books I would like to re-read for nostalgic reasons like Harry Potter or books I didn’t really understand the first time round like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro but I don’t know if I will manage to revisit them by the end of the decade!


    1. I have too big a TBR pile, and too little time & enerygy to do much rereading as well. Spending time on rereading does seem like a luxury that I can’t quite afford. But that said, there are certain books that I would love to go back to if only to just capture back some of the mood and sentiments associated with the book when I first read them. Maybe not the rereading of the entire book, but certain chapters or passages, at least.


  2. I love the quote from Hazlitt – that sums up the way I feel about old favourites, which I read again, and again, and again. I’m still wary about much contemporary literature, but this year I’ve read (and loved) lots of authors who were new to me, and have joined the shelves for re-reading. Many of the novels I return to are classics, such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice… but they’ve been joined by writers like Virginia Woolf, Tove Jansson, Muriel Spark and a host of others, as well as books from my childhood


    1. I am also a little wary about trying new writers whom I am unfamiliar with, especially contemporary ones. And there are still alot of classics that I want to get down to actually reading for the first time, rather than just reading about them all the time. This year has seen me finally getting acquainted with Trollope, Collins, Wodehouse, Pym & Woolf. It was kind of ‘love at first’ (or first read) for Collins, Wodehouse and Pym. As for Trollope and Woolf though, a bit more of a ‘courting’ is still required, I think. 😉


  3. I used to do a lot of rereading when I was a child, because even though we were a reading family, we didn’t really buy that many books. All the books we had at home were books from family friends who had no more space in their own personal libraries.

    I don’t do as much rereading now as I would like to, not because I don’t enjoy it, but simply because I can’t seem to find time anymore. And besides, the books that I’ve read in the past few years, I borrowed most of them from the library, which means I don’t own them and can’t just pick them up whenever I feel like it.

    All that said, I simply love all three quotes. Perhaps the one that resonates most with me now is the one by David Long. We’re different people, every day.


    1. Time is indeed a very big factor. If I wasn’t so easily distracted and enticed by new (to me) titles or recommendations/ discoveries, there might be a better chance at getting some rereading done. So, unless there is a really strong/special reason calling for the reread of a particular book, chances are it won’t get reread. Or at least not in its entirety.

      I am starting to keep reminding myself of the two illuminations that struck David Long:
      (i) I couldn’t read every book; and
      (ii) I could quit a book if I wanted.

      And not feel guilty about it.


  4. I’m closest to the David Long quote. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been able to quit reading a book (or skim it quickly) without feeling guilty.

    I love to reread, but don’t do it that often because I have such a huge list of books I want to read for the first time. Even so, I will reread one or two Agatha Christie mysteries every year, and probably one or more of the Anne of Green Gables series. True comfort reads.


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