On Visiting Books


During lunch a while ago with my friend Fred Irons (writer, trumpeter, professor emeritus, artist, fisherman, et cetera, et cetera), we got into a discussion about re-reading books.  Fred does not generally re-read books, he says, because he already knows what happens.  I have a number of books I re-read, even

(I actually tell kids this was my prom date...)

though I already know what happens.  I tried to explain to him what brings me back to certain books–some I read again every few years, some more frequently than that.  Plot, yes:  who cares if I know what events are coming up?  If the story is a good one, it’s rather fun to go along with it.  But there are other things, too.  Perhaps I have a certain fondness for the characters and wish to revisit them:  I revisit my friends, and I firmly believe in the value of fictional as well as real-life friends.  Some writers have knack for character development which I admire, so I go back for the technical expertise as well.  Craft, yes.  I go back to look at how the writer has created the world.  Or chosen to use language.  I tried to explain to Fred how I am a meta-reader:  I’m in the story, experiencing it as it unfolds, but I’m outside the story as well, admiring how it is constructed in order to work the way it does.

Many of the books I re-read are classics, according to the received wisdom.  I’ve re-read Moby Dick, for example, though the limit for that one is about once a decade.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I go back to every few years, because I’m a fan of the way Mark Twain’s brain ticks over.  Jane Eyre is one I revisit on a fairly regular basis:  everyone used to read that in my Brit Lit classes every year (we’ve widened the choices now), and I still find myself picking it up.  Shakespeare?  The tragedies more than the comedies, and the comedies more than the histories; Macbeth and Hamlet most of all.  I have written elsewhere in this blog about one of my favorite books of all time, The Man on the Bridge by Stephen Benatar, and how I re-read that one at least once a year.  I will admit to reading the Harry Potter series, all seven books in order, several times.  I will also admit to reading the entire series of Richard Jury mysteries by Martha Grimes several times–in fact, every couple of years, when a new one comes out.  A few years ago, my way-cool sister gave me the entire set of Trollope’s Barchester novels:  I’ve read through those a few times in order, as well (not timing my reading as Trollope timed his writing, but there it is).

I own a lot of books.  I have many many bookshelves in my house; a couple of years ago, I constructed a built-in bookshelf in my living room, from one end to the other, running under the front windows (and that’s filled now, too).  If I like a book enough to buy it, I read it more than once.  If I read a book more than once, I usually buy it.  If the book lives in my house, it’s ever so much easier to revisit it, after all.

Fred!

When I was talking about reading books more than once, poor Fred just sat there, looking surprised and perhaps a bit horrified.  If I had been able to see my reflection in his glasses, I probably would have seen that same expression on my face when he said he never did.  I love Fred dearly, but in this instance, he and I simply don’t understand each other.  I kept thinking horrible thoughts like I’ve already read that poem once; I don’t need to look at it again…or I’ve already listened to that song…seen that movie…looked at that painting…  Granted, I don’t like every book I read; nor do I like every poem or song or movie or painting.  If I don’t like it, I don’t need to go there again.  But if I do?  I think again of my lovely friend Karen, who goes to art museums to visit her friends among the paintings–surprisingly, when I mentioned her to Fred, he said he understood that, he could experience paintings more than once.  Is there a difference, then, between one kind of art and another?  Should there be?

Postscript:

This is my best friend among the books:

and here is my best friend among paintings:

I have too many best friends among songs and poems, so we’ll just stop there, shall we?

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4 Comments

  1. Karen

    Well, of course we reread books. How would I have become the person I am if I had only read Catch-22 that one time when I was 12? I mean, I didn’t even understand half of it then!

    Thanks for the shout-out, Anne. I do feel like my books are dear friends, and so are you!

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  2. I re-read certain books too, either cause i forgot its content or i just want to read the construction of sentences..

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  3. Jenny Doughty

    For me, it depends on the book. There are some I’ve read many times (Jane Austen’s entire oeuvre, ditto the Brontes, ditto Dorothy Sayers, Dorothy Dunnett, and much of Terry Pratchett on the grounds that you miss some of the jokes if you don’t re-read). Some books I’ll re-read once or twice and that’s it. Others I feel no need to revisit – most thrillers, for example.

    I think that now I’m getting older, my maturity as a reader is showing in my unwillingness to finish a book that isn’t rewarding me either through its plot or through its craft. At one time I would have struggled grimly on, on the principle that I’ve started so I’ll finish, but now I’ve decided that life’s too short for that.

    Poetry and paintings are different. The time investment isn’t the same, for a start, so the ‘life’s too short’ principle doesn’t apply.

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  4. Easy- no brainer books- reread them when I’m sick. Want to read, don’t want to think. Classics, reread all the time. Depends on the book. I read a lot. When I can’t find something new to read, that’s when I just start pulling randomly from my bookshelf. Some things- can’t reread. Really heartwrenching stuff, no matter how great the first time… don’t want to go through that again! I work at a newspaper with movie reviews- and often attend movies with the reviewer. If the movie is based on a book I have already read, sometimes I’ll reread the book so I can have fresh perspective. Sometimes I have novel amnesia and just can’t remember details of books I’ve completed.

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