Fat Books & Thin Women

On Rereading
February 17, 2011, 4:46 pm
Filed under: Ways of Reading | Tags: , , , , ,

When I’d been in Macedonia a few months and my parents were figuring out what to send me in a package (reliable standbys, for those taking notes, are Reese’s Cups, magic markers and SillyBandz – don’t ask) I said something about wanting some books and we decided that Nabokov was, really, our only option. My mom couldn’t believe that I hadn’t brought anything by Nabokov, and once she said that I couldn’t believe either. What had I been thinking, coming to Macedonia with The Norton Anthology of Literary Theory & Criticism (I’ve opened it one time) and John Cheever’s complete stories (I’ve read one of them) but nothing by Nabokov?

I can’t at this point remember what informed my packing decisions of September 2009, but probably I didn’t bring any Nabokov because I thought his books would be too “heavy” for the Peace Corps (thus the Norton and Cheever for some light reading?) and because I knew I wouldn’t be able to leave the books behind me in Macedonia. It is one thing to transport books halfway across the globe, another entirely to carry them back. I’ve now got Ada, or Ardor, Pnin and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight here, and except for when I let go of Pnin for a couple months I haven’t even considered loaning the books to other volunteers, for fear they, and all my notes and underlinings, would be forever lost.

I take my rereading most seriously when it comes to Nabokov, in the sense that I regard his books as records of my own history and reading as much as anything. I should buy a fresh copy of Ada because mine is such a disaster, but I doubt I ever will because I enjoy reading my past readings as much as anything else. But when I look over books I’ve read in the past year or so, I have to suspect that I’m more of a rereader than many people, and I want to know why.

About a third of the books I read last year were rereads. I use the term broadly; I don’t just mean that I read a book for a second time, but that I’ve read a book for a second or third or fourth time, exact numbers being hard to come by. Some of these are children’s books, which I see, reading-wise, as the equivalent of watching John Hughes movies, or Forgetting Sarah Marshall for the tenth time, or Gilmore Girls reruns. They’re comforting and remind me of my childhood, when I believed that anything was possible (like that I could grow up to be a grizzly bear scientist despite a generalized fear of large animals, blood and the sciences).

But there are also the other rereads, the Nabokov and Charles Portis, my third (or is it my fourth?) run through of One Hundred Years of Solitude, all the classics I first read in high school and have only recently discovered to be Not Terrible. Or the way how, when I visited the Peace Corps library on Monday, it wasn’t the unexperienced books that I got excited over and decided were worth carrying three hours back to my town, but Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost (this will be my third read?) and Paradise (second). Or how half the books I’ve lined up to read soon (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Tree of Smoke, The Savage Detectives, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Lolita) are rereads. There’s a reason, too, why the first book I want to read when I get back to the states is Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases (for the third time).

Nabokov once said:

… one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do no have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. (from Lectures on Literature)

He isn’t discussing rereading in the way I am, but his general point – that to read a novel is a laborious process and that an understanding of a novel builds slowly because we cannot take in the whole of the work at once – is where I aim when I start to think about rereading. Reading is work in a way that looking at a painting or watching a film or an episode of Gilmore Girls isn’t, and it’s not work that I think can be completed with one go-round. To read Lolita one time isn’t really to read it; it’s to prepare you for the second reading, when you’ll be able to begin understanding the novel, its narrative form and its narrative time.

Maybe my love of rereading is nothing more than a sign that I haven’t outgrown that phase of wanting the same bedtime story every night, just that I’m old enough now to cloak that search for the comforting and familiar in loftier language. Whatever inspires it, I often feel the only reason I read new books is my hope that I’m going to find one that lands on my “to reread” shelf, like Of Mice & Men, which was actually only on there about twenty seconds because I reread it immediately after finishing it.

What’s the point of reading, if not to find the books you’re going to reread?

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Great post. I’m not a big rereader, but I am slowing gravitating back to my favorite novels, gearing up to reread them here and there. I think there is something to be said about revisiting a novel after you are familiar with it. You really can appreciate the artistic qualities much more.

Comment by Brenna

I like this, Ellen.

On the bookshelves, I’ve Lolita, Glory and Pnin (haven’t read this one yet) and I want even more Nabokov. I think his work lends itself to rereading even more than usual.

In general, i rarely read reread books within the span of a few years. There are a few exceptions though notables a WoW trilogy by Richard A. Knaak I’ve read several times in the last few years.

Great post.

Comment by Mayowa

i think you’re right, nabokov’s work does lend itself to rereading more than usual. he plays so much with time and there are so many details to his novels that seem insignificant until you do a second or third read and can spot the connections. not always major things, or necessary to “understanding” his work (whatever that means), but still exciting to uncover.

i’m trying and failing to remember if i reread as much in the states. nabokov, always, but i think i reread more here in macedonia because it’s comforting in some way to return to books i’ve been through before. this doesn’t explain why i haven’t devoted the last year and a half to reading harry potter on a loop, but it’s the best i got.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Your post made me think about a lot of things. Since I started blogging, I’ve been like a kid at a candy store. I stopped rereading old favorites, and wondered at all the books I hadn’t read yet. Maybe it’s time to stop and smell the figurative roses.

Speaking of Lolita, it’s definitely time for a reread. :)

Comment by Darlyn

do you ever feel a tension between the desire to discover amazing new books that you might one day want to reread, and just wanting to return to favorites?

i think i go through phases in my reading, which has got to be normal. sometimes i get going with books that are new to me, or recent publications, and sometimes for weeks the bulk of my reading is rereading.

the more i read book blogs and reviews of books i’ve never read, though, the more i want to read everything that everyone else is writing about. the only thing stopping me is lack of access to a public library and not wanting to spend all my savings on kindle books :)

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Yes, I do. For example, I love Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Little Women, and could happily reread them over and over. However, I keep thinking that there are tons of books, not just classics, that I would probably love. The thrill of discovering new “favorites” is a huge part of why I keep reading. :)

Comment by Darlyn

Lovely lovely post Ellen. I do like to reread too … Jane Austen is my first port of call, but I have discovered in recent years that I re-read other books – and look to do so – more than I thought I did. There’s always that tension between what you might be missing when you re-read but at least when you re-read you know you are getting something that means something to you, and in the end that’s really what reading is all about isn’t it?

One of the reasons I bought a kindle was for rereading classics… so I could have them at hand whenever I wanted them in an easy to manage format.

Comment by whisperinggums

[…] of Fat Books and Thin Women would agree I think. Check out her recent post in praise of re-reading, and see for yourselves. Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for […]

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I love rereading and sadly I haven’t reread as much in the last few years as I usually do. One of my goals for the year is to get through the unread books on my shelves and TBR so that I can take a more relaxed and normal approach to reading in future years. I’d like to undo what blogging has done to my reading habits.

Comment by Amanda

yeah. i wouldn’t say that i have any real “reading goals,” but one of them is to stay away from what seems an unnerving desire, among bloggers, to read a certain number of books a year. better to read naturally, to read what’s interesting at the moment, than to read as some sort of project. (for me and my mental health, anyway.)

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Oh agree totally. My only reading goal is to try to read more one year than the previous – just because there’s so much to read – but I have no actual number in mind (and in fact the number I read each year is very low) and I rarely achieve this goal! I don’t do challenges either, though I’m thinking I could do a TBR challenge ie try to read books I already have than buy more!

Comment by whisperinggums

i got pretty excited for a couple of reading challenges at the start of this year (the novelty of it all?) but after a month of having the buttons up on my site and not wanting to do the challenges i figured…maybe these things just aren’t for me. like you, i want to read the books i already have, and i want to enjoy the books i do read. so, i’ll probably read something by murakami this year, but i don’t want to wonder if i’m reading it just because i signed up for the “haruki murakami reading challenge.”

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I love this post so much. I can really relate to the wonderful-ness of rereading and I love Nabakov’s comment on reading. I don’t reread often enough, although I try to reread at least one thing a month.

Comment by Rebecca Reid

[…] On Rereading (fatbooks.org) […]

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