On Rereading

Note: this is not our bookshelf.

Lots of books

First, I feel compelled to note that I wrote this whole post already and then something bad happened on the computer and it vanished forever, so while you read you should be haunted by a better, more light-handed and impromptu post floating out there somewhere in cyberspace (cyberspace? is it even called that anymore?).
We just returned from a big trip to faraway Sweden, which was wonderful and excellent in all sorts of ways, but which also brought all of us face to face with that thrilling and vertiginous fact of travel: difference. Different alphabet (did you know Å was its own real letter, and not just called "A with a little circle on top" but more something like "ouoo"?). Different electrical outlets. Different language. Different.
In many ways, this was wonderful. I forgot how much I love that feeling of realizing that the world is much bigger than I am usually conscious of. But I also forgot what a big deal it is for kids to have everything—things they didn't even know they were taking for granted—switched up on them.
So. Rereading.
I love to reread books, I read them over and over, some ones on particular. When I'm sad, Jane Austen is obscurely but absolutely comforting. Patrick O'Brian cures cynicism. When I have the flu, Air Force Wives can make me forget my troubles.
Diana, too, is a big rereader. So when she packed up her (22!) books for the trip, she took her old favorites. I think it was equal parts wanting to have "friends" along, and the sense that when we buy a new book it's impossible to hold  off and three hours later it's already read. But the thing is, even when you like rereading, for some people, having only 22 books with you—especially if you're already somewhat familiar with their contents—will start to make you crazy after, let's see, 8 days.
We went to Stockholm's truly lovely international library and there they were, whole new shelves of English language books!  And then: she moved through, turning down one book after another until she found—books she'd read before.
I was struck with equal parts profound frustration and sympathy: when you walk into a party, it's awfully comforting to see a familiar face. But good heavens, couldn't she just…well, I guess not.
When I am feeling more sympathetic I remember a conversation I had once with a woman who had never reread anything. Why would you, she asked, when you already know how it ends?
I had no answer for her then, but later it somehow became clear to me. It's like Paris; once you go, and see how wonderful it is, don't you keep wanting to go back?

11 thoughts on “On Rereading

  1. Lovely lovely post! What were you doing in Sweden? I’M in Sweden! 🙂
    I don’t know who said this, but I love it: “The only bad thing about new books is that they keep us from re-reading old ones.”
    Here I’m leaving in the morning for a trip and I have ONE book packed. Because I’m going to America and the bookstore near the hotel I’ll be staying at is the size of a football field TWICE (2 floors) and it’s open until 11. Choirs of angels sing in my head when I open the door. I’ll be coming back with many many more than one. Or even 22. 🙂


  2. Welcome home!
    Lizardek, that’s one of my favourite quotations. I used to be more like Diana, but now my reading time is more limited, and I’m so busy discovering new favourites that I don’t read old favourites as often as I’d like to. That goes for authors too – do I go on an Author X binge or do I discover four wonderful new-to-me authors? Ah, choices, choices…
    I did once (in recent memory) read a book, finish it, and then start over. NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro. Beautiful. But usually I’m too busy exploring. 😉


  3. I re-read my comfortable books over and over again. Some have seasons – Dana Stabenow, when it’s cold – some have activities – Dick Francis, for flying – some I just love – Sayers, Mary Stewart, Laurie King. I can’t imagine not revisiting my old friends.


  4. People who don’t reread are missing out on the joy of revisiting old friends and places in favourite books. As I get older, I find myself agreeing with Jorge Luis Borges more and more: “Rereading, not reading, is what counts.” Of course, without reading there would never be any rereading… But I’d rather reread authors like Austen, Tolstoy, Tolkien and Borges himself than venture out to read something new that I’m not so sure I’d like. Call me picky (or perhaps old?), but there I am.
    I’m glad you liked Sweden. Hope the children didn’t mind the differences too much. Did you know that in Norway there’s even a place called Å? 🙂
    (For evidence, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Å,_Moskenes)


  5. Rereading is one of my great joys, and I always believed I was sort of alone in that. I’m all for a good story, and I’ve recently discovered some highly entertaining genres like mysteries (never read them!), which are great to fly through, find out who done it, and move on. But, for example, when I first read “The Long Goodbye,” I knew that would be one that would remain forever on the bookshelf.
    Rereading is like enjoying a favorite food. Yes, I know what it tastes like, but that doesn’t make me want it any less. When I read Douglas Adams, I actually giggle–out loud. And this is the 50th time I’m reading these books! I can really identify with Diana, heading straight for the books she’s already read. Myself, when I’m “trapped” somewhere and don’t know when I’ll next acquire a book, I’ve been known to buy based almost solely on the number of pages. In fact, that’s how I discovered “Possession,” one of my favorite accidenta l discoveries; it had lots of pages, so I knew it would hold me for a while. And lo and behold, through multiple readings, it’s lasted more than ten years so far!


  6. I am rereading the Harry Potter series right now. I haven’t read book seven, so I began with book one to get there. I am so enjoying it. I haven’t reread a book since I was a kid. I need to do it more often, except I have a stack of books to be read as well….


  7. Where did you find that photo? …I feel like I know the family whose shelves those are! …it would be funny if they’re the same shelves!


  8. I read the entire Little House series 7 times in a row when I was about 12, so yes, I guess you could say I’m a re-reader. I love the old familiar books, they’re like friends, and just like I call some friends on the phone when I’m sad and some when I’m feeling goofy, I read different books when I need different things. I still reread books from childhood (Sue Barton, Student Nurse, anybody?).


  9. Unlike most of the commenters here, I do not reread books other than to introduce my kids to them. My daughter and I are in the middle of Black Beauty and I am really enjoying revisiting the characters from my own childhood with her. But rereading an adult novel would be difficult for me, I think, because I’m not a very patient reader to begin with and find myself skimming parts instead of enjoying them. There are a few books I have such fond feelings for that I would like to try reading again, but I have to get through this giant stack on my nightstand first!


  10. I’m a re-reader and a bibliophile. Once, I was asked the same question as well and like you, I took a while to answer it. I told this person, who has a huge CD collection, that re-reading is like listening to an album again…and again. I already know the tunes and lyrics of the songs but I’d listen to it again…and again.


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