The Reluctant Re-Reader

I have always found the desire to re-read novels bewildering. I do it, obviously. I can’t deny that it’s a pleasurable and fruitful exercise. But time is so short. Books are so many. As rewarding as it is, why on earth would you revisit an old flame when there are thousands and thousands of potential soul mates, young and old, crying out for your attention from the shelves?

I understand the theory, of course. A friend of mine, who has read Jane Eyre perhaps twenty times, tells me that it has become her mental comfort blanket, a reliable refuge for those tough weeks when she doesn’t have the imaginative energy to crack a new plot or fall in love with a new character. As in real life, in times of stress she craves the company of old and easy friends. That makes sense.

And I know that re-reading is not just an emotional palliative; it can be a genuinely enlightening form of self-discovery. Over the years, our allegiances to characters switch as we develop a more nuanced empathy – and perhaps greater impatience with the qualities revered by youth. Anne Elliot becomes a more appealing role model than Marianne Dashwood; Holden Caulfield feels more emo than hero. Back in school, Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina seemed inexplicably self-destructive and delusional; with a few ill-advised liaisons under our belts, we understand what love can do. Returning to a favourite novel can become a potent benchmark for internal change and maturity.

At a first read we are slaves to plot, overlooking nuance and detail as we race to find out what happens next; the privileged hindsight of a second go allows us to recognise clues and reinterpret events. It also allows us to notice our prejudices and preferences and question their wisdom. Are we quickest to judge those most similar to ourselves? Does our tendency to miss details reflect our lack of observation in real life? Re-reading destabilises our original position of semantic authority and reminds us that stories offer multiple truths, depending on what the reader chooses to see.

In short, I get it. But when it comes to a choice between developing a deeper relationship with a single text or embarking on a fresh fling, I find it very hard to resist the lure of the unknown.

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