Just discovered a great article from Newsweek by David Gates about re-reading books and why we do it, “Now, Read it Again: like old friends and favorite haunts, some books reward revisiting.” (Note: the current print issue features many articles about books and reading; the cover is titled “What to Read Now.” ) Though the author has very different reading tastes from my own, several points resonated with me. One is that there are a few authors who are probably read, and read again: “Still, I suspect that the most widely reread writers in English have been Dickens, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen—hardly a month goes by without my revisiting one of them—who combine the sleepy-time comforts of story and character with all the challenge and complexity, the inexhaustible newness, that anyone could ask for. I’ve taught them all in the classroom, while in the bedroom their books have slipped from my hands as their stories shaded into my dreams.” I loved how he expressed this idea — that even though we are re-reading, the books are still new. And of course the mention of Austen hooked me, as I reread more Austen than anyone else!
Why do I reread Pride and Prejudice at least once a year? Pretty much since I was thirteen? Gates notes that “In a recent New York Times op-ed in defense of rereading, Verlyn Klinkenborg lists some of his old favorites—he turns out to be a Dickens hound too—and concludes: ‘This is not a canon. This is a refuge.’” I couldn’t agree more; Austen is a refuge for me. I love the characters, with all their flaws. I love the romance, the humor, the wit. I love the words Austen chooses. I love the order of this world, the pacing, the happy ending.
I also appreciated Gates’ inclusion of mystery stories and Sherlock Holmes; I too can read those more than once; knowing the ending does not spoil it for me. I return to visit characters I like, and Sherlock Holmes is surely one of the greatest characters ever created.
I have known friends and children who re-read each Harry Potter book prior to the release of the next Harry Potter book, up to book seven. Though I did not do so, I have reread some of them over time, and the books *are* different upon re-reading. For example, when you read the first book for the first time, you don’t realize the significance of Hagrid delivering Harry on Sirius Black’s motorcycle. Sirius Black is just an unknown name to the reader. But after reading Book 3 and returning to Book 1, this is more than just a random cool sounding name thrown in — you now know Sirius and why his motorcycle was around for Hagrid to borrow. Likewise, after reading Book 5, you know more about the magical device Dumbledore uses to put out the streetlights, also mentioned in Book 1. I am sure there are many more instances of this kind of thing in the Harry Potter books — Rowling is a master at plotting details.
So you can learn new things from re-reading, but most of all I think the biggest reasons are for pure pleasure: the comfort of returning to a familiar place, the pleasure of visiting an old friend, and the joy that accompanies this experience.