Thursday, November 8, 2012

A must re-read

Some novels I can read twice, or even several times, others only once (and I may even regret that!). So why do I return to a novel to read it again (and perhaps again and again)? I can think of at least four reasons why I might do so.

First, I might do this if a novel has moved me in a particular way. I return to it to repeat the experience. It’s rather like listening to a favourite piece of music over and over. You know how it will make you feel, whether it be joyous, or deeply sad. Of course, overexposure will deaden any response eventually, as with any sensory experience. The Color Purple by Alice Walker is one such novel. Another is The Book of Lights by Chaim Potok. On the other hand, there would be no point in re-reading some novels, particularly mysteries or thrillers: once you know the outcome, you can never repeat the initial experience. You can never again savour the suspense, the sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat-ness.

The second reason I might revisit a novel is because it is such a rich and complex piece that I am certain to have missed something during the first reading. In contrast to the previous case, I do not necessarily expect to repeat the initial experience. In fact, I expect the book to offer up a new experience each time I read it. I will understand something that eluded me on the first reading. I respond to James Joyce’s Ulysses and some of Virginia Woolf’s novels in this way.

The third reason involves the changes I have passed through, the living I have accomplished, and the growing older I have achieved, since first reading the book. So I return to it to see how it appears now, in a different light, to this new me. This has been my experience with some of the novels I was required to read during the latter years of high school. Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White is a novel I have re-read several times, at key moments in my life. I recently re-read Conrad’s The Secret Agent, another book that was required reading. Some of the Russian classics have also resurfaced during these later years. I was a huge fan of science fiction in my teenage years and early twenties; but I have to say that most of these books have not fared well with age (with my age, at least).

The fourth reason is somewhat less satisfying. I have long been a fan of fantasy, and have often found it necessary, before reading the 800 page, tenth volume of a seemingly endless series, to go back and re-read the 800 page, ninth volume, in order to refresh my memory. (Don’t these writers have editors? Has no one ever explained to them that bigger is not always better? But therein lies another tale.) This can sometimes be an irritating, rather than fulfilling, experience.

I imagine there are many other reasons why people choose to revisit a book. I would love you to share your own experiences in the comments below. 

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