Our Reading Lives

Reflections on Rereading and The Self

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Sarah Rahman

Staff Writer

As a recent college graduate who studied English just so she could read more books, Sarah spends most of her time devouring whatever catches her fancy, from classics to young adult reads. She aspires to write a novel someday. When not reading or talking about books, she can be found hiking in the woods or dancing alone in her room. Now, for that cup of tea she was making . . .

I have a confession to make. Most of the books I’ve read so far this year have been rereads. After going through Northanger Abbey, I revisited Sense and Sensibility, followed by Pride and Prejudice. I’m clearly in the middle of another Austen phase, but that doesn’t mean other books are safe. I’m in the middle of The Left Hand of Darkness and Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, both of which I’ve read before.

northanger abbey cover

My love for rereading is nothing to be wondered at. My fellow Rioters have written at length about this topic. There are recommendations for books and series that you can reread. Some have written about the struggle to reread books in the face of your TBR pile staring accusingly at you (as TBR piles are wont to do). Others have been carried away by passion and talked about the joys of rereading.

Then what, you ask, am I doing here? There is already a case for rereading — it is now an established, respectable art form. Not only have we told you what to read and how, we’ve even told you how to make time for it. What else is left?

Song of Achilles book cover

Well, this, of course. As Madeline Miller writes in her Song of Achilles (can you guess how many times I’ve read it?), this and this and this. Just as there are readers who are new to the activity, there are ones who have been doing it for years. The same applies to rereading, and I fall into the latter category. I discovered, early on, how much fun it is to reread an old favorite.

At first, rereading was simply a guaranteed way of receiving pleasure from a book. It’s a lot like ordering the same dish at a familiar restaurant — there is less risk of disappointment and while it’s less exciting, there is comfort in knowing you’ll enjoy what you have. Not all books are good at a second turn, but those that are, stay with you.

Rereading is quite different from the initial perusal of a book. For starters, you know what happens in the end. If you’re someone who gets their thrills from the mysteries of the unknown, rereading, by definition, takes that way. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other mysteries. Rereading can open your eyes to instances of foreshadowing, for example. There is more to a book than just plot. There’s the structure of the narrative, jumps back and forth in time, language, metaphor, dialogue. All those crowd to the forefront when you’re rereading, and each new observation provides a new source of joy.

My favorite part of rereading is the way my reaction to the story and its characters changes each time. When I first read Pride and Prejudice at 13, I didn’t register much other than it was a romance and that Elizabeth isn’t a fan of Darcy in the beginning. At 20, I realized that the love story between the two, while admirable, was far from the only reason the book had survived so long: I took note of the friendship between Jane and Elizabeth, the way both Elizabeth and Darcy grow before they can be good for each other, the sharp character studies Austen makes. This year, I thought again of the unhappy marriage between Elizabeth’s parents, and Austen’s commentary on how an ideal partnership garners respect for each. Even if I had read the book just once at an age I could understand it, I would never have gleaned from it as much as I did through subsequent perusals.

twilight book cover

It isn’t only about the book, though. Rereading has, over the years, become a way for me to measure changes in myself. When I could no longer read Twilight with the pure joy I used to, or when I finally understood the grief portrayed in Wuthering Heights, I found that I had changed. I paid attention to different things. I found joy in books I hadn’t expected and could no longer return to old favorites with the same amount of enthusiasm.

Rereading has also changed the way I approach books. Now, when I don’t completely understand a book I’ve read, I don’t worry about it, knowing I can come back later and try again. Similarly, if I find a book boring or simply painful to get through, I let it go. Rereading has taught me that there are an infinite number of books out there to love, but I won’t necessarily love them now, at this time in my life. There are some I would have loved years ago, and some I will learn to love ages thence.

For now, I’m going to lose myself in another book I’ve read before. The road less traveled by might be exciting, but the one traveled often has old, beloved friends.