In Defense of Rereading: Why Your Book-Reading Experience Shouldn't Be a One Night Stand

It probably seems strange that I, an enthusiastic, self-declared book snob and literature nut, used to shy away from discussing my favorite books. It wasn’t so much the “What are your favorite books?” question that made me uncomfortable as the inevitable follow-up question: “Why”?

Faced with this inquiry, I’d be required to recount (gasp!) details from the books that I allegedly prize above all others. After all, if I love them so much, I should be able to explain exactly which parts stood out to me and made them worthy of distinction in my eyes. Though I can, years later, feel whispers of the emotions that gripped me while I was originally immersed in the cathartic throes of reading, I often have trouble recalling simple details like the names of some very key characters and places. This provided for an embarrassing situation, to say the least.

One potential solution to my conundrum: Reread my so-called “favorite” books to remind myself of exactly what I cherish most about these go-to novels.

Ah, but there’s the rub. There are so, so, so many more books in the sea! So many literary splendors to behold! So many new releases to devour, so many classics to discover, so many sequels to enjoy! As Kelsey Thomas ruled in a recent article: “Life is too short to read a bad book.” I wholeheartedly agree; and continuing along that line of logic, we could also assert: “Life is too short to read a book I’ve already read.” After all, I already laughed uproariously through Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You. I already marveled over the advances in noetic science as explained by Dan Brown in The Lost Symbol, and I already contemplated the probing theological issues in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.  I already sobbed my way through Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and John Grogan’s Marley & Me. (Why yes, I’m a crier. Why do you ask?) Considering the fact that there is an infinite and ever-growing number of books out there that I haven’t yet read, how can I justify sweeping aside one of my as-of-yet-undiscovered titles for one that I already enjoyed? I’m cheating myself out of so many new experiences!

To address this problem, I first considered the inescapable notion that I will most likely die before reading every single book in the universe. (Shocking, I know.) Surprisingly, after sufficiently contemplating this depressing notion, I actually felt liberated rather than paralyzed. Why? Because if there’s no way I can possibly read everything, I might as well stop pressuring myself to try. And that opens up the floor — erm, bookshelf — not only to the stories I’m most interesting in trying out, but also the ones that I know I’m interested in revisiting.

Before experiencing this epiphany, I tended to view reading merely as an equation of direct variation between “books read” and “knowledge gained”; as one increases, so does the other. As Malcolm Gladwell puts it: “When I see my bookshelf expanding, it gives me the illusion that my brain is expanding.” My family turned this concept into a bona fide competition when we each created accounts on Goodreads and began the tedious process of marking off every obscure book we’ve ever barely skimmed in an attempt to demonstrate how cultured and knowledgeable we are. That way, when someone asked me about the books I like, I could chuckle condescendingly and make an off-handed reference to the list of 239 (…give or take) books I marked off on the site.

This was back when I bought into the mentality of quantity over quality, and I’m admittedly still proud of the sheer number of books I’ve already inhaled this summer. But I also began to appreciate the more powerful, more intimate impact that books can have on me — even the ones I’ve already read. Actually: especially the ones I’ve already read.

Although new books have the potential to inspire such feelings in me, the books I’ve already devoured and loved are guaranteed to do so. Broken-in books also have a secret power that you won’t unlock until you experience the thrill of rereading for yourself: Time travel. Rereading a book allows you to take a giant leap back in time to the place you inhabited when you first pored through a particular novel. For example, I vividly remember curling up in a ball to cry in my friend’s basement when I finished The Kite Runner — everyone else in the house fast asleep — and I was transported there again when I recently reread Khaled Hosseini’s heartrending coming-of-age tale. Like grooves carved into the wall to measure a kid’s growth over the years, revisiting a book from my past allows me to get an idea of how much I’ve changed over  a stretch of time — or how much of me has remained the same. As a Millennial, rereading the Harry Potter books takes me back not necessarily to a particular point in time, but to the entire era of my teenage life, complete with the thoughts of the friendships and interests that reading these books for the first time afforded me.

In fact, whenever I pick up a book I must be filled with a subconscious desire to revisit them, because I’ve always been a Book Marker. Holster your pitchforks, my friends; as long as it’s my book, I don’t see anything wrong with folding down pages and underlining sentences. That’s how I immerse myself in the novel-reading experience — I make notes of meaningful quotes, tear-jerking passages, or witty one-liners, because I want the morals and messages of the book to stay with me for the rest of my life, even after I’ve turned the last page. Like a scrapbook, the earmarked pages help me navigate my way back to what drew me in to begin with. For all that my most favorite books have given to me, the least I can do is to check back in on them every once in a while.

Image: trawin on flickr

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