A Reason to Reread
I do not have a clear memory of the first time I opened a book. My father, a voracious reader, must have read to me early on in my childhood, but those memories are foggy. At some point, a major facet of my identity became my love of literature. It must have happened gradually, because over time the pile of books in my room grew, seemingly of its own accord. As I have gotten older, and the pile more diverse, I have found myself rereading novels.
Sometimes I pick up a novel that I have not read in years, and somewhat like old friends whose friendship has suffered due to long distance and not malice, we rekindle with ease. Other times, it's that awkward small talk that occurs between you and your middle school best friend (you know so much about who they used to be, but seemingly nothing about who they are now.) But whenever I am in the midst of rereading, my little brother asks the most obvious question: “Why read something again?”
In his “Lectures on Literature,” Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov argues that “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” Nabokov believed that the physical action of scanning a page detracts from the experience of understanding the text, and only through subsequent readings can missed meaning be attained. While I agree that we understand texts better after multiple readings, I do not believe that to reread is to read. More than anything, I have found that rereading highlights the passage of time.
As religious people, we are deeply familiar with the process of rereading. Religious Jews engage in ritualistic rereadings at set times throughout the year. Every Shavuot we return to Ruth, and every Yom Kippur to the story of Yonah. In these cases it is evident why we do so — these texts evoke a series of emotions or sentiments that are relevant to the holiday on which they are read. But also, returning to a text helps us understand how we have changed since our first encounter with it.
While I have not formed ritualistic relationships with the novels I reread, I find that there is great power in returning to them. I find joy in the repetition. As I go through the motions of opening a novel again, I am deeply conscious that I have done this before and somewhere in a parallel time I sit, doing this same thing but for the first time. However, unlike me and everything else in my life, the book in my hand is unchanged. The moored nature of literature lends itself to a sense of security and familiarity. This feeling is especially poignant when rereading novels from childhood.
I want you to think back to a book that you loved in high school. It can be any genre, but preferably fiction. If you can, take the copy that you have off of your bookshelf, ignore the cries of your to-read pile, and see what happens. You may be shocked by the familiar setting, and the way that the characters feel like old friends. Or you may find that whatever originally piqued your interest no longer does it for you, which is also fine. I urge you to try, because ultimately all art is a light stretching from the past in an attempt to illuminate our present. And sometimes returning to an old source of illumination can spark something in our souls.
As we enter the new year, I intend to return to the stories that shaped me. If you reread a novel, drop me a line — I’d be happy to hear about that experience.
Photo Caption: A reader.
Photo Credit: John Singer Sargent / Wikimedia Commons