To Read, or to Re-Read

by drpoppy

I would venture to guess that I am not the only person who is often torn between reading something new and re-reading something loved.

And yet, I rarely re-read books unless it’s a professional obligation to do so. When I was in graduate school and teaching, I re-read a number of my favorite novels — Jane Eyre, Bleak House, Dracula, The Moonstone, Never Let Me Go, Atonement, Beloved — because I took multiple classes using those books, or I was writing a dissertation chapter about them, or I was teaching them. Although this has its hazards — for instance, sometimes I think I’ve memorized Dracula and will never be able to look at its pages again from sheer overexposure (even though, deep down, I know I would read it again) — the nice thing is that you become very intimate with that novel, and you get to see it from multiple perspectives. Most importantly, you have an “excuse” to re-read it.

Why would you need an excuse to re-read a novel? Why, because there are SO MANY MORE NOVELS TO READ, of course! If you take time to re-read a novel, you are missing out on time you could use reading a new one.

I’m thinking about this right now partly because I am working on an article about bibliomaniacs, those who obsessively collect books. I would never truly refer to myself as a bibliomaniac — if I’m being honest, I can’t say I’m really that obsessive — but I do greatly enjoy accumulating books, both in the sense of collecting the physical book and in the less literal sense of reading as many books as I can. Currently my bookshelves are completely filled and I just pile my new acquisitions on the floor. This is not a big problem, but it would be nice to have a better location for my as-yet-unread books. In any case, I can’t seem to stop buying books, and I certainly can’t read them fast enough to keep up with my buying habit. I know many people buy more books than I do, but I feel I have a moderate book-buying habit.

A few months ago, I told my husband that I was going to stop buying new books until I caught up on reading the pile of unread books I have. I broke that promise yesterday when I went to the bookstore to pick up a new release that was on sale. But until that, I had been pretty good with my resolution and had been making progress with my pile. (So now I have two piles, unread and read, because I still don’t have any room on my bookshelves.)

So my book-buying compulsion is one problem. The other is the knowledge that I’ll never read all the books I want to read. If I were sane, that would make me just feel comfortable re-reading whatever was pleasurable. But instead it makes me want to get as close as I can to reading everything. My Goodreads account feeds into this. Until I joined Goodreads, I had never heard of a book challenge. But now that I’m aware that people sometimes challenge themselves to read, like, 100 books in a year, the pressure is even greater. Even though I know they must be reading short, easy reads, like mysteries and YA novels and chick lit, and they probably don’t remember anything they’ve read, I’m baffled and awestruck by these goals. How do you read 100 books in a year? How is it even physically possible? You would only be able to take 3-4 days on average to read every book, and never take a break!

Despite my desire to read many books, my own Goodreads stats reveal that I am actually a very slow reader and I don’t read as many books as I think I do. Since finishing my PhD (so this doesn’t include the years I spent reading a book a week, as it was essentially my “job” to do that), the most books I’ve ever read in a year was 14. (The largest number of pages was 5690 over the course of 13 books. Though I just looked closer and realized one of those books was The Forsyte Saga, which is really three novels, so technically I could say the most books I’ve read in a year was 16. LIKE IT MATTERS.)

Anyway, all this completely imaginary pressure, compulsion, and competition makes it hard for me to justify re-reading anything, even though I know I would probably enjoy doing so. Isn’t that silly? 

For the record, here, in no particular order, are 5 books I have never re-read but would like to if I can manage to justify it to myself:

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark (This book took me the whole summer to read the first time! But my husband and I were both asking ourselves recently why we bother reading new books instead of just reading this one again.)
  • The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt (Possession is also amazing, of course, but there’s something about The Children’s Book — I think about this book all the time)
  • Oscar and Lucinda (my friends are so tired of hearing about how much I love this book)
  • Alias Grace (Recently I saw a film that featured a quotation from this book, and I was struck with a longing to revisit the intense world Atwood creates in it. What a great writer she is! And yet, it’s been so long since I’ve read one of her books, other than The Handmaid’s Tale, which — you guessed it — I used to teach. A lot.)
  • The Scarlet Letter (Is this one weird? It’s just that I read it back in high school–or maybe even middle school?–when I couldn’t have possibly understood it completely, and before I became interested in19th century writing.)

What about you? Do you ever re-read a novel of your own volition (not out of professional obligation)? If not, why not? If so, what novel, and why?