What Does Rereading Books 100 Times Actually Do To Your Bookish Brain?
There's a debate in the literary community about rereading books: Does the second (or third or tenth) time reading count in your list of books you read this year? Should you reread when there are so many books out there to get to? But one author and columnist named Stephen Marche falls squarely in the pro-rereading camp. In fact, he believes in the idea of "centireading force," or rereading the same book 100 times. Marche has read both Shakespeare's Hamlet and The Inimitable Jeeves by PG Wodehouse 100 times, the former for his dissertation and the latter for comfort, and he is quick to praise the power of rereading.
I assume you have around 100 questions. So do I. Let's go through this together.
Marche read Hamlet 100 times because of Anthony Hopkins. More specifically, he heard that Hopkins read his scripts 100 times, giving him "a tremendous sense of ease and the power of confidence." Because Marche was writing his dissertation on Hamlet, he wanted that ease and power of confidence, too, so he followed suit.
Well yeah. I mean, that's really just a super intense version of studying. Makes some sense. But what about The Inimitable Jeeves? That one was just for kicks. He first read, or rather listened, to the novel on cassettes while driving on family road trips across the U.K. And as we all know, these kinds of memories can have a staying power when it comes to books:
The psychology of my love for The Inimitable Jeeves isn’t exactly hard to understand. As we rolled through that strange country, laughing at the English with the English, the family was both inside and outside. My associations with The Inimitable Jeeves are as powerful as they could possibly be, a fused sense of family unity and childhood adventure. The book is so much more than just a happy childhood memory. In such ways, books pick us, rather than the other way around.
And so began his quest to reread this other book. But what did he find in Hamlet and The Inimitable Jeeves after 100 readings?
The main effect of reading Hamlet a 100 times was, counter-intuitively, that it lost its sense of cliche. “To be or not to be” is the Stairway to Heaven of theatre; it settles over the crowd like a slightly funky blanket knitted by a favorite aunt. Eventually, if you read Hamlet often enough, every soliloquy takes on that same familiarity. And so “To be or not to be” resumes its natural place in the play, as just another speech. Which renders its power and its beauty of a piece with the rest of the work.
To be frank, I couldn't read Hamlet 100 times because I couldn't read Hamlet much more than 10 times, which I probably did over the course of my education. Hamlet is a pretty annoying dude with his constant "woe is me, me, me" attitude. But I respect the point. Literary repetition is a way to clear your head entirely of how the world sees the book and see it from a completely new perspective. Of course, this has a counter effect, too. And Marche saw that with his "overreading" of The Inimitable Jeeves.
He was finding new and more outlandish theories each time he finished the book, delving deeper and deeper into political theories about the story, seeing satire and counter satire on top of it. And looking back on it, he can see that he was going a bit mad:
I am overreading, obviously, probably crazily. There is a definite affinity between centireading and madness – the assassins clutching their copies of Catcher in the Rye, the cults of various kinds poring over their various testaments. I remember a friend’s mother, returning from an extended stay at a mental health institution, who owned a copy of Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles which she had read so many times that every last word had been underlined. It reminded me of my own relationship to Hamlet. Eventually, no passage is unworthy of highlight.
And yet, he still believes in centireading.
Centireading reveals a pleasure peculiar to text lurking underneath story and language and even understanding. Part of the attraction of centireading is that it provides the physical activity of reading without the mental acuity usually required.
So maybe I have read my comfort read, Judy Blume's Summer Sisters, every year since I discovered it when I was a pre-teen. But at age 30, that's still only slightly less than 20 times. And I already feel like I know it like I know stories of my own life and experiences, as crazy as that sounds. Maybe in the course of my life, I'll reach 100 times (hey, life expectancy will go up by the time I'm elderly, right?), but holy moly 100 times in a couple years is bananas.
And I have questions: Do you think Marche has read Harry Potter yet? Or The Hunger Games? Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train? When you're constantly rereading, how can you stay up on the cultural milestones of our present literary world? And it goes back to the debate of rereading itself: Are you missing out on books and cultural conversation around them because you've decided instead to pick up Pride and Prejudice for the gazillionth time? But then again, if you can get to know —really, truly know — one of the greatest literary texts ever, isn't that just another reading path of us book nerds? I don't have an answer for you, and I don't think anyone does though they'll be sure to take sides, but you can only know for yourself what you think when you find that one book you want to read 100 times. (Or, if you stop at 3 and think: This is ridiculous.)
Images: Giphy (3)