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To Reread or Not to Reread?

By Sandra Clark

Free image: Girl Reading a Book at Home

I read the Little House on the Prairie Series again and again and again as a child. Without a doubt they were my favorite books. In the slim number of grade school years when I was old enough  to devour chapter books and play pretend (2nd- 4th grade, I think) I would tuck these “guidebooks” under my arm and haul them out back with supplies to set up camp. A few blankets, an old table cloth and a few dress up clothes I considered “old-fashioned enough” to fill in for proper pioneer calico and lawn print dresses were put on and strung up so I could make camp. Opening the books I would shepherd my younger sisters, cousins, and neighbors through the various scenes I’d convince them to enact. I read, reread and role-played those stories until the book covers were weathered and the spines tattered, aching with overuse. I was sure nothing in the text could surprise me any more. I knew them by heart.

My daughter is at the right age for listening. So often in the afternoon, after kindergarten, the playground and lunch, we settle in to read. We’ve reread many of the classics of my childhood: Charlotte’s Web, Pippi Longstocking, and several Ramona books. A few months ago I pulled out the precious books about Laura and Mary and we dove in. She’s loved them just the way I’ve hoped she would; I catch her spontaneously in her own enactments from the book. I’m surprised her reaction is so close to my own so many years ago. However, I’m amazed how different my experience has been upon this rereading two decades since my last reading.

Without the rose-colored glasses of childhood that simplify and skim over context, I can’t miss it. Thick in the complexities and requirements of my own real life, I marvel at the reality written into these books, even though they aren’t the artifacts of nonfiction I once assumed as a child. (And yes, I am still on the long wait list to get a hold Laura’s grittier, true-life tale, Pioneer Girl.) I still identify with Laura as I read (Mary was entirely too good and long-suffering), but now I also put myself in Ma and Pa’s boots, wondering, how on earth did you manage when the grasshoppers came and devoured everything, when there was a bear in the cow’s pen and so many times when the situation seemed so desperate? I’m stunned not just at the story, but how Laura remembered so much of it, and how much of the story is in the context I passed over as a child.

I confess I have a short list of books, aside from children’s titles, that I have read and reread. Life seems short and there are so, so many books I still want to read, that I’ve felt it a sacrifice from the list of new-to-me books to return to something I’ve already been through. Yet, the fresh perspective and pleasure I’ve felt returning to books with my kids, is forcing me to rethink my thoughts on rereading. Here are a few thoughts that have helped me reconsider rereading:

“A good book is never the same twice.”- Hilary Mantel

“Rereading is therapy, despite the accompanying dash of guilt, and I find it strange that not everybody does it. Why wouldn’t you go back to something good? I return to these novels for the same reason I return to beer, or blankets or best friends.” – Tom Lamont, The Pleasures of Rereading

“We do not enjoy a story fully at first reading. Not till curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savor the real beauties.”
– C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature

“I do like people to read the books twice, because I write my novels about ideas which concern me deeply and I think are important, and therefore I want people to take them seriously. And to read it twice of course is taking it seriously.”
– William Golding

“…the reader who plucks a book from her shelf only once is as deprived as the listener who, after attending a single performance of a Beethoven symphony, never hears it again.”
-Anne Fadiman, Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love

“What we seek is often what we find; rereading can enlighten us about what we are looking for now and what we have sought in the past.
[E]very discovery, large and small, brings its own delights, reminding me over and over why I need not feel guilty over rereading instead of exploring new ground. Rereading is exploring new ground—new ground in familiar territory. By the criterion of pleasure, it ranks high; and its evocation of fresh meanings give it weight also as a source of instruction.” – On Rereading by Patricia Meyers Spacks

“When you re-read a classic you do not see in the book more than you did before. You see more in you than there was before.” –Clifton Fadiman

Perhaps rereading is not redundancy, and the stagnation I have often maligned it as, but part pleasure and a rereading of who I’ve become since I read the book last.

How about you, are you a rereader? What books do you reread if you do? Or why don’t you if you don’t?

About Sandra Clark

Sandra Clark Jergensen's writing (most often about food) has been published in Gastronomica, Apartment Therapy, The Exponent, and at Segullah, where she was once the Editor-in-Chief, and now as Features Editor. Sandra geeked out on food and writing as a master's student food studies at University of Texas, Arlington. She makes her home in California where she runs without shoes, foster parents, teaches cooking, develops recipes, and struggles to take pictures with her eyes open, and sometimes all at the same time. She is the owner and creator of thekitchennatural.com.

18 thoughts on “To Reread or Not to Reread?”

  1. I recently reread Little Women and was amazed at the difference between reading it as a girl and reading it as a mother. I heartily recommend a rereading of it!

  2. I love rereading a good book! I work in a library so this is very difficult because I have so, so many "to-read" books. Nevertheless, I always have to reread whatever book I am reviewing for my book group every year. Of course I always pick a book I think is great, but it still never ceases to amaze me how much more I like it the second time!! I have decided that I rush through my books–especially if they are good and I am eager to see how they will end, so the second time I am "seeing" things I didn't enjoy the first time around.

    I also have certain books that I just believe are worth rereading every decade or so: "The Hiding Place," "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn," "To Kill A Mockingbird," "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, etc, not to mention (but yes to mention!) the children's classics I reread while reading them to my first two daughters then reread again with my younger two daughters (among many "A Little Princess," "Anne of Green Gables," "Secret Garden," "Charlotte's Webb," etc)

  3. I am currently reading the Little House on the Prairie books to my children. What sticks out to me right now is how important Pa was to the whole family–to protect and provide for them. I just read the part where Pa and Ma are building the house (ack!!!–building a house) and the log slips and falls on Ma's leg and she sprains her ankle. I cringed as she binds it up and keeps on working. Laura makes the comment that supper was a little late that day. If I were in that situation, I probably would have gone to bed and rested. It gives me a new appreciation for hard work and sacrifice and also how an man and woman can work together–each giving their all in unique ways to really lead their family.

    I think re-reading books is powerful. That's probably why we need to read the scriptures over and over again. We need to read them so deeply that we continually uncover layers of meaning.

  4. Often, when I'm recommending a book to my kids, they'll ask, "How many times have you read it?" If I admit to reading it only once, they reply, "Must not be a very good book."

    Obviously, I'm a huge fan of rereading, especially the childhood classics mentioned above. I'd add everything by C.S. Lewis, Edith Wharton, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens…OK, let's just say all the classics. And Peace Like a River and the Harry Potter books and… well everything worth reading once is worth enjoying again.

    Often, when reading mysteries, I'll turn the last page (or listen to the last chapter) and go right back to the beginning. The first time through is just a race to learn the plot, it's on subsequent reads that I savor the details and note all the foreshadowing and character development I missed the first time around.

    My daughter has been reading and rereading all the Little House books this past year. Like you, Sandra, I'm so grateful she enjoys the books I love so much.

  5. We are re reading too and I love it so many books it is hard to pick…..one old favorite that recently reappeared at our llibrary I was delighted to find was Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson. They were orginally published in Swedish in and in the 1950's were translated into English. I remember trying to find thrm years ago and thr library had pulled thrm from thr shelves. I was happy to see these books once again…..

  6. The book I reread most as a teenager was "Gone With the Wind." I still have my original copy and it is barely intact. I definitely reread fewer books now, but I do pick up a Jane Austen now and then (P&P or Persuasion) and probably reread a favorite once a year or so. I should do it more often!

  7. How timely! I am also currently reading Little House on the Prairie to my 8-year-old daughter. As a child I read all of the Little House books many, many, many times.

    Generally I don't reread things any more, mainly because I have so little time. The one "grown up" book that comes to mind, that I have reread 3-4 times, is Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.

  8. I very rarely re-read books, but I just finished one that I'm already planning on re-reading (probably to my girls): "The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making".

  9. I was a huge rereader as a child, but I don't reread much now. In fact, I've pretty much stopped going to book clubs because I've usually read at least half of the selected titles and I always think it will be a waste of time read them again. I usually figure that the list of books I haven't read is so long that I would rather read something new. But this semester I taught a literature class, and I had to reread all of the books I'd put on the syllabus to prepare to teach them. It was such a pleasure to read them again, and I was surprised and delighted by the new things I found in familiar stories. So I definitely think there's a benefit to rereading, especially Anne of Green Gables. By the time I get to the last book, I'm always crying even before I crack the first page.

  10. I re-read a story I hated in High School, "Death Comes to the Archbishop". I loved it as an adult. As a result, I read the rest of Willa Cather's works. Wonderful!

  11. I definitely reread. I reread kids' books (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson), I reread grown up books (unless it's a mystery and I can remember the ending when I look at the book) and I reread anything that is floating around my house. An acquaintance, while working a middle school book fair this week, asked why I would bother, since I know the ending. Then she said, "Rereading books is nothing like watching movies over and over." The conversation pretty much ended then.

  12. I re-read Ender's Game every year or so, to remember who I was when I first read it, and check in on the ideas I once found so compelling. I re-read favourite fantasy series when the new book is coming out (much like I watch the previous instalments in a movie series when the new one is coming out). I re-read the Little Women series, and Austen novels (and wish I could re-read the Foundation series) constantly. As of last year, Anna Karenina is on the list.

    I'm a little afraid to revisit Anne of Green Gables, though. Can it really live up to my remembrances? What will I do if I find myself changed from that girl I once was?

  13. Generally I think that if a book is not worth rereading then it was not worth reading in the first place. But that may not be true in EVERY case. The book I read about building your own home was VERY valuable when we were building our house but I have no plans to reread it. Jane Eyre is one that I like to read every ten years, as well as Jane Austen's works, LOTR, and Fablehven. A few I want to reread–1776, Undaunted Courage and Team of Rivals. I am MAKING myself read Winston Churchill's HUGELY long biography and think it would be worth rereading (except I am annoyed with him for being a stink to his inferiors even though I think he saved the free world as we know it) but I don't think I will ever get back to it again. I have about ten books going at any given time as well as a list of books I WANT to read that is SO LONG that I don't think I will get to them all before I die. I wish I had two brains . . .

  14. Oh! Definitely Little House books and Death Comes for the Archbishop! It is time for that one again! And Harry Potter. I have never read Little Women–I did not read it as a child and could not stomach it as an adult, although I did enjoy Eight Cousins a few times. I have also never read Gone with the Wind. I tried rereading Anne of Green Gables but it wasn't the same. The funniest reread I had was when I read The Scarlet Letter again. As I was going through it I truly could not remember ANYTHING of it but kept coming across notes written in the margins in MY handwriting. Apparently I had read it for a college course but had (obviously) not taken much in.

  15. Wonderdog, Ana, eljee- Thanks for the recommendation on "Death Comes for the Archbishop" I haven't read that yet, but I do like Willa Cather.

    Ana + Michelle- and thank you for the hot tip on Churchill's bio. Maybe you just pop in for lunch and tell me about it instead of me slogging through it all?

    Shelah- Anne of Green Gables was the first book I ever cried in. I know I'll be rereading it when my kids are ready for it.

    Olea- do go reread it. It stands the test. And I read Ender's Game a few years ago after a hard semester of theory. It was the perfect antidote. I really ought to read it again, but truthfully I will probably be rereading it when I read it to my son .

    And someone mentioned Fablehaven- I haven't read that yet. I'll add it to the list.

  16. Emily, I recently took a Tolkien/Lewis literature class with Orson Scott Card at Southern Virginia University. When I told him my favorite of his books was Speaker For the Dead, but my paperback copy was in no condition to be signed, he promptly wrote down my address and sent me a signed hardback copy.
    A real gentleman in the generosity department.


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