Essays about the joys of rereading seem to be a perennial thing. Just search “joy of rereading” and you’ll see. I’ve read a few essays about this and they’re fine. But I’ve yet to find one that really gets into what I see as the juicy territory of how and why we reread.
So this is a first foray into the possible mechanics of the desire that drives us to return to particular books. Also, is there a small set of common reasons we do this? Or is it entirely personal and hidden, even from us as we keep doing it, a compulsion words can only approach without capturing? This first attempt will be expansive and general. Maybe I’ll write about some specific books later. For now, some more questions and a few awkward leaps toward some kind of answer.
So, how is it that a novel can be flawed in more ways than one, yet we still find some of them so compelling we return to them, choosing them again instead of a new book?
The myth by which we adore a story or a poem seems so couched in nostalgia and loyalty. It’s fascinating to explore when we finally have some distance and clarity. Because distance and clarity seem hard to come by with reading experiences that evolve into a personal myth. We do truly love these books. Maybe too blindly. Almost with the same sort of love we adore, and will defend, people we love.
Why? We know books, just like people, are not perfect. Yet some rise to this level of exemplifying part of humanity, our own, or something beyond us, that we believe must be defended. They mean so much, despite their flaws, that we’ll recommend them and get excited when we know someone is reading/meeting them for the first time, and want to hear what that person thought about it later.
So part of the answer lies in admitting that these books, and our loyalty to them, continue somehow to show us something not only about life, but about the value of remaining dedicated to The Book (that is, the book as a source of meaning). Even if it was flawed. Maybe even because it was flawed, because the flaws give it balance, life, reality, what have you, and remind us that we, too, with all our flaws deserve love.
Andre Camus said (and I’m quoting here from Edwidge Danticat’s book Create Dangerously) that “a person’s creative work is nothing but a slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three images in whose presence his or her heart first opened.” (Not crazy about the binary pronouns here, but minus those the idea here is interesting.)
From Camus’ idea, first, I want to apply to more than writing, painting, composing, sculpting, you name it. I think that reading is also a creative act. You may disagree. But I see it at least as creative-adjacent, instructing and fueling the creative mind and spirit. Even if it’s just “light” reading, I believe it’s like a “light” conditioning form of exercise, staying in shape, maintaining the active- or close-reader part of the mind. Also, as we read, we are remembering, then adding to that memory, accruing more memories of this book, and by the end if the book has affected us in just such a way, we will have already begun to create a myth around it, and we may even enshrine this reading experience inside us. Which is a creative thing the mind is doing.
So, rereading Camus’ statement above, from that, then, what drives the desire to reread? If reading is creative, then rereading could be akin to doubling back off the winding trek to rediscover one of those images that Camus claims made us first feel our hearts were being opened. Will our heart feel more opened when we revisit the enshrined reading experience? Less? But it could be countless other experiences we are seeking. Peeling the onion as it were to get closer to moments or passages, scenes or phrases that spark that feeling within the pages of a certain book.
I’d like to posit something further. Reading is a sort of chance. That is, of all the books we might come upon we will only get to read a fraction of what has been published. One could say all our book reading is as happenstance as the result of a tarot reading, plucking out a card every so often as our lives continue and life on this planet rages on. As if the universal library of available books is outside the living world and maybe in a way (and I’m having fun here) it’s having its way with us and reading us. I see our reading lives not as some “owned,” educated, self-directed experience we can really be too proud of. (Reading is of course just one way to reduce ignorance.) I think it’s good every so often to set aside pride in what we have read.
So, let’s put those two shaky propositions together and shake them up even more. If we admit for a moment that chance (and perhaps good fortune) plays a part in guiding what we have been able to read, then, as we move forward in life, continuing to pick and choose books based on whatever impulses are driving us, what does it then mean to want to re-read something?
For if chance created “you,” the readerly you formed by the history of books you’ve been allowed to read by your luck and experience, and “you” feel drawn to turn back to one of those chance experiences (which has been enshrined), if Camus’s idea is correct and you’re seeking one of those two or three key images that opened your heart, is it possible that the source of this feeling Camus describes might be so elusive as to verge on the unknowable?
So (and this is a wild and shaky so!), perhaps as we age and read more in time we begin to apprehend that this unknowability is in fact certain, and very real, and based mainly on chance. We begin to know this and accept it, yet we keep on reading. And occasionally we reread. It seems that if we do accept these things, perhaps part of our aim of going back to those books that reached us is to feel the new distance we would like to believe we have created, the distance between the fragment of our memory we carry forward each day and some feeling we believe is locked in one of these specific books.
This quasi-syllogistic rambling may amount to something or not. But what this feels like it’s getting at is that in some minute way maybe rereading involves two things. One: the apprehension of an idea we are carrying, the personal meaning of the return, as if the act of rereading is drawing a line from our current life and connecting it to an earlier point in the hope of reliving something in a unique way. So, sure, we want to relive it. Okay. But we have chosen to, for a reason, whether we know the reason or not. The not-knowing for sure is what’s interesting.
But, two: I don’t think it’s conscious, but I suspect, based on my own experiences of rereading that a small part of this act is an intuition of a strange possibility. Namely, that by rereading, when it feels special again, then via the book and the investment of our time and the choice and act of returning we can then continue on in life from two points at the same time. In a way. Not time travel, but gather or renew and combine and create a new energy or sub-self as it were. Energy we have created as a mirror now, redoubling echoes of hope, pleasure, the thrill of still being alive to make this attempt again.
The two points are of course the point of the present at which we decide to return to the book. And the point when we “go back” and feel established in the past, in the book, when one or more of Camus’ heart images continues to live, and occur, and keeps occurring, for us, having created some ripple in the universal library of known and unknown and unknowable experience.
This, in turn, of course triggers the pleasure of knowing we are still alive. We feel renewed. And we feel that secretly, maybe we can become more alive, creating by our rereading another underlying timeline for ourselves carrying us with redoubled power, connected to those books in our past.
Anyway, these are some first thoughts! Rough, but I wanted to share and I’d love to hear from you about your rereading experiences, too. Later on maybe I’ll put down some thoughts about reasons we will not reread certain books we love. Books we highly recommend to people, but secretly will never reread because we cherish the reading memory’s perfection and don’t want to risk marring it. That’s an interesting one – the superstitious belief that if we reread we may accidentally snuff out part of the fire keeping us alive.