Anne Notations

Friday, July 13, 2007

Rewind. Press Play.

Why, asked someone on a list I administer, do we re-read favorite books? Why, indeed?

After all, we know what happens. We know the twists and turns of plot. We know the ending, for heaven's sake! Isn't it a waste of time to re-read something when so many other books are waiting for us, and our lives are so starkly finite?

I don't think reading literature is ever a waste of time. Engaging in the act of reading is like going to another place, changing our scenery. It makes our neurons fire in an entirely different way than does, say, watching the news or talking on the phone or walking the dog. This, to me, is A Good Thing for body, mind, and soul.

More to the point of the question at hand: Returning to a much-loved book is simply pleasurable. I'm a big believer in the power of hedonism; the evolutionarily-encoded yen for stuff that feels good is a key human motivator. Perhaps we raced through a novel on our first reading, yanked headlong by a compelling plot, and now we can savor details and nuances we missed. Maybe it has been many years since we've read a book, and what we've experienced and learned since then forms a new chemistry with the text, expanding our appreciation. Sometimes I revel in a particular writer's syntax, the way she molds and caresses words and makes characters - imaginary or real - come alive.

What books have I re-read? The old standby of junior-high reading lists comes to mind: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which never fails to break my heart. Similarly, Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. There are good reasons why these books are perennially assigned reading, people.

Surely by now I have re-read the six volumes of Dorothy Dunnett's epic historical-fiction series, The Lymond Chronicles, set in 16th-century Scotland, France, the Levant, and Russia, five or more times. I will always be grateful to my friend Kathy for introducing me to this saga in the early 1980s. The books - laden with perverse characters, obscure old languages, and encyclopedic literary references - aren't for everyone. I'm honored that Kathy considered me someone who would find them thrilling.

Ellen Gilchrist's short stories, particularly those about her alter ego, the flame-haired belle Rhoda (now collected in a single volume), are irresistible repeat reads. In the nonfiction realm, I read Annie Dillard's slim meditation Holy the Firm so many times, its softbound pages are falling out from wear.

Jon Hassler's several novels set in the fictional midwestern town of Staggerford stand up well to subsequent readings, as do André Dubus's short stories and essays. The "Ender" sci-fi books by Orson Scott Card proved themselves re-readable just this year; I purchased them used on so that Kevin could enjoy them as I had, and found myself sucked right back in. I can tell, somehow, that I am working myself up to re-read the copy of The Lovely Bones that I loaned to Melinda this spring. As for Barbara Kingsolver's short stories: yes! There are a few stories in the annual "Best Short Stories" anthologies that I go back to, principally a witty, poignant gem by Lorrie Moore called "Terrific Mother" (in the 1994 "best" volume). I think I have read it at least a dozen times.

Clearly, I could go on and on with this list. Merely typing these titles makes me want to dive back into some of them.

Do you ever re-read books? Which ones are worth a second glance?


  • Hi Anne,

    I think reading is much like gardening. We read our favorite books over and over for the journey, not just for the final goal. In the garden, it is the same. It is the process that keeps us hooked...the thought of unearthing something more compelling, educational, and emotional that makes us wiser and more understanding than the day before.

    Take care,

    By Anonymous Beth, at Tue Jul 17, 02:13:00 PM EDT  

  • We re-read books for the same reasons we keep friends in our hearts for so many years--they leave a huge impact on our spirits, they change the way we look at the world, they shift our course ever so slightly.

    I never eat a ripe tomato, warm from a farmstand or the garden, without thinking of the kitchen in Little Compton and some amazing feast you had prepared. Tag sales? You introduced me to the idea you could get some pretty cool stuff at a great bargain. The Swiss Enchiladas from the Vegetarian Epicure, the lemon squares you handwrote the recipe for--that blueberry thing you posted a while back? I have made them often. And what I learned about good writing from you--as a colleague and a reader for many years--those lessons have stayed with me through many a "Is it which or that?"

    Annie Dillard morphed into Annie LaMott for me; Kingsolver, Gilchrist, and Morgan--a holy trio. Lymond is incomparable. I can't bear to re-read those now. Four times was enough--

    Tonight at midnight I'm taking Harper to pick up her 7th Harry Potter book. And watching her sail through those books and re-read them and analyze them and bring them into her heart...I can only hope she feels some of the passion for a good read that I have felt, and shared, because it's spiritual in many ways. The writer reaches out and touches another person and animates them. That connection is shared between writer and reader, and between friend and friend.

    There's got to be a bit of God in there somewhere, don't you think?


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Jul 20, 09:39:00 PM EDT  

  • I read PG Wodehouse stories and novels over and over, because I always find a new laugh in them.

    By Blogger bozoette, at Fri Jul 27, 01:10:00 PM EDT  

  • Charlotte's Web. I sob each time I re-read it, but each time, my tears are for something new.

    By Blogger tjs, at Sat Aug 04, 05:36:00 PM EDT  

  • I've re-read so many books, it's impossible to begin listing them. It's the test of a really good book, as far as I'm concerned.

    By Blogger kishke, at Tue Sep 04, 05:55:00 PM EDT  

Post a Comment

<< Home