A year of re-reading?

I came across this passage from Nabokov on reading and re-reading recently:

Curiously enough, 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 not 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. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.

I agree with what Nabokov says here, and it bothers me that I do relatively little re-reading. Of course, I feel pulled by the lure of new books too, and that pull is almost irresistible, but reading nothing but new books (new-to-me books) feels a little bit superficial sometimes, as though I’m not really digging into my reading, really thinking about it seriously and experiencing it fully. I know I’ve written about this before, and I don’t mean to rehash old thoughts, but this feeling does stay with me.

So I’m tossing around the idea of focusing on re-reading next year. I’ll certainly read plenty of new books, but I might try to pick out some books I’d like to re-read as well, maybe some books that meant a lot to me in the past, or that I didn’t understand well the first time around, or that have continued to intrigue me. Perhaps I’ll re-read something now and then, say, once a month or so. I’m trying very hard not to commit to any reading challenges, but this wouldn’t be a challenge, exactly, and I wouldn’t set the books I’ll re-read in stone. Maybe I’ll list some possibilities, but make the final choices only at the last minute.

So, what might I re-read? Right now, these are a few books that come to mind:

  • Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Of course I’d pick things from the 18C! I would like to know this early novel better; I’ve read Fielding’s novel Joseph Andrews quite a few times, as I’ve written about it before, but Tom Jones I don’t know as well.
  • William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. This book has defeated me so far. I’ve tried to read it at least twice, succeeded only once, and didn’t really get it where I did succeed in finishing it. But I want to get it! I really do.
  • Something by George Eliot. She’s one of my favorite novelists ever, and this re-reading would feel like pure pleasure. I’ve already re-read several of her novels, including Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch. So, perhaps I’d re-read The Mill on the Floss? Or Adam Bede?
  • Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I don’t feel like I’ve done justice to this book; perhaps I read it when I was too young or wasn’t able to focus on it fully. I have vague memories of it, but would like to know it better.
  • Perhaps Lolita? I really love Nabokov’s writing, and I’m sure I have more to learn from this book. He’s such a wonderful writer, isn’t he?
  • Perhaps I should return to some books from my youth? Perhaps the Betsy-Tacy books, or some Anne of Green Gables.

I’m sure I’ll think of more as I go on …

24 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading

24 responses to “A year of re-reading?

  1. I love rereading, but like you I feel I’ve been so busy catching up with all the new books on my list I haven’t done enough rereading lately. There must be a reason I keep all those books I’ve read! You’re making me ponder which books would be improved with a reread…

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  2. Oh, this is a good idea for a post (and for your reading too, of course)! Like you I felt guilty about how little I reread, which is why I’m rather excited about only doing rereads for the Sunday Salon. I’ll come up with a list too and post it.

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  3. I can definitely sympathize with you regarding having to choose between reading all the new books you want to read and re-reading some that you have particularly liked or some that you didn’t really “get.” I often find myself rushing to get through a book so I can get onto the next one. In the process, I don’t really appreciate fully the one I’m reading. I like some of your choices for re-reads, especially George Eliot. I don’t think I’ll every re-read any Faulkner. I just don’t get it, and I’m not sure I want to (but I probably should).

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  4. hepzibah

    what a wonderful quotation, it is really powerful and enlightening and I realize that I need to change that about me, I need to reread, like you said I want to read as much as possible, but sometimes reading more in depth is better…After I reread something, i realize that I appreciate it more as a piece of artwork and music than anything else, it kind of transcends its ordinary purpose and becomes something more wonderful that I first imagined it to be.

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  5. Pingback: New books to meet, old books to revisit « The Books of My Numberless Dreams

  6. Pingback: Of Books and Bicycles >> Re-reading « slowreading.net

  7. I found this quote fascinating. It chimes in with my research into narrative organisation because unlike some forms of analysis you can’t ‘do’ it as you read your way through the story, you have to have a concept of the whole before you can ultimately place the pieces. I would love to deliberately spend some time re-reading but in general it only happens if I have to read a book again for a specific purpose (a class to take, a reading group task). Your idea of building some into a year plan of reading is intriguing and one I shall take away and think about.

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  8. verbivore

    Re-reading is a great idea. I have often tried to alternate new book with old book but its hard, because like you said, there are so many books I haven’t read that I really want to experience.

    Lolita is definitely on my list for a re-read. Hopefully next year.

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  9. I often wish I had time to re-read books but the lure of the “new” is very powerful. I have read Wuthering Heights a couple of times though and I must say it is very rich.

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  10. Kristin

    I myself am a rereader. There are some books that I have re-read numerous times, and I find it to be a very rewarding experience – not only do I get to enjoy the novel more fully, but I also learn about myself. For me, rereading a book is like visiting an old friend. Additionally, every time I reread, I find something that I missed at a previous rereading – a certain passage or event that rings true or important due to changes in my experience since the previous reread. I have found myself understanding and sympathizing/empathizing with different characters through each reread, and my reactions to their actions are different as well. This has been a gage at time as to how much I have changed over the years.

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  11. I’m so happy I bookmooched that Nabokov!

    Before I discovered the book blogging community, I reread a lot. Now, I probably reread one book a month at the most. I want to focus more on rereading next year too.πŸ™‚

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  12. How funny–we must be on the same wave length. I’m posting something later today on the same lines as this (and I didn’t even see your post first)–though coming at the subject from a different angle. I need to reread more as well. I’d love to reread Wuthering Heights. Definitely reread Wilkie Collins, and I might also get more out of the Sound and the Fury again (actually the first time around I think it mostly went over my head…same with To the Lighthouse). I love the Nabokov quote by the way!

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  13. Pingback: Nabokov’s Take on (Re)reading « Adventures in Reading

  14. Melanie — yeah, all those books I’ve kept — so many I could re-read! Otherwise, why have them around, really? Other than that I like the way they look …

    Imani — now your idea for the Sunday Salon is interesting — as is the Salon itself. I’ve been thinking about joining … not sure … I don’t always have a ton of time to read on Sundays, but I could maybe join in for a little while.

    Lisa, yeah, I worry about that too, rushing through books and not giving them their due. It’s so hard appreciate what one is reading right now and not rush ahead!

    Hepzibah — yes, the experience of re-reading can be so wonderful, it’s a shame we don’t pursue it more!

    Ann — your work sounds quite fascinating! (And if you ever want to write a post describing it further, I’d love to hear more …)

    Verbivore — alternating is an interesting idea — you’d certainly re-read a lot that way.

    Stefanie — well, then, perhaps I’ll have to make an extra effort to get to Wuthering Heights next year!

    Kristen, I love the idea of using the re-reading experience as a way of measuring how you’ve changed — you really would have to read carefully and thoughtfully to remember how your responses have changed.

    Astripedarmchair — good, I’ll be glad to have company!πŸ™‚ Reading book blogs is an excellent endeavor, but that might be one flaw — that it discourages re-reading because it makes you so aware of all the new books out there.

    Danielle — I’m eager to see your post then! Perhaps we need to start a group or something …

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  15. When I was feeling really poorly a little while back and couldn’t settle on anything I wanted to read, I thought, I know, I’ll do some rereading! But even though I dug out some of my favourite books ever, I couldn’t really do it, or at least not unless I had almost completely forgotten the books in question. As soon as the story started coming back to me, I found I lost interest. I’ll reread for work, but not for pleasure, it seems. I’ll still be interested in how you get on, though!

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  16. Yet another excellent post. I don’t think I have ever had more than seven comments on an entry (half of them being my responses) so, to have sixteen here says something about the interest you pique. Re-reading is great, but as Litlove pointed out: it shouldn’t be done if it feels like a chore.

    “The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting.”

    I thought this part of his quote was interesting, since I am studying shuji. Our calligraphy works, particularly in the cursive scripts, cross the lines between painting and writing. If you are merely reading the work, it is similar to a book, but if you are just appreciating it, it is more comparable to a painting. Yet, in both cases, the element of time certainly enters into play. Strokes get wispier and wispier as the artist writes more and more; suddenly darkening, even to the point of bleeding out onto the page, after the brush has been recharged in the well. A slightly trained eye will be caught by the patterns, showing the movement in time. Occasionally, planting the brush for certain strokes can draw out a hidden reserve of ink from deep in the brush, given a slightly darker set of strokes that fades more quickly. This works as a kind of natural punctuation, which I think has much to do with the absence of punctuation until very recently; it simply wasn’t needed. A good artist will not go for ink in the middle of an expression, much like singers time their breaths to avoid disturbing the audience.

    As you can tell, I am excited about this, but I will stop short of suggesting we should only read books that were hand-painted in cursive calligraphy scripts.πŸ™‚

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  17. Pingback: Libromancy » Blog Archive » On Re-Reading

  18. Bikkuri, that is really interesting about the phrasing in Japanese calligraphy. Makes sense.

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  19. Litlove — it’s interesting how some people find reading the same story comforting and familiar and others find it boring … there are definitely some books I wouldn’t want to re-read, even though I enjoyed them the first time around; for me books I re-read have to have a certain amount of heft to them, something like Jane Austen or George Eliot, for example.

    Bikkuri — fascinating stuff! I love the idea of writing and painting blurring and of being able to appreciate the words and the way the words are formed. And I wonder about time and painting — is what Nabokov said really true? I mean, yes, you can look at an entire painting all at once, but it takes time to absorb it and look at all the parts of it and fit them together — information doesn’t come all at once, after all.

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  20. I re-read a lot, mostly because I’ve never been able to afford my book habit. In fact, I think sometimes I re-read lazily because I’m too ‘tired’ to read anything new; and when I am ill, I reach for the familiar.

    I like your idea of re-reading in a more deliberate way, either revisiting old favourites or taking a second stab at something that has been difficult in the past. I am definitely planning to re-read Lolita next year. I appreciated it so much more by listening to the audio version that I want to try to recapture that with the print.

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  21. Pingback: Friday Procrastination: Link Love : OUPblog

  22. Thanks for an informative blog. Just thought you might be interested in some recent polls on re-reading, for example, how many times people re-read a book, and which books are re-read the most. You’re welcome to visit my blog, post entitled ‘Reading and Re-reading’. Thanks again for creating an interesting blog.

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  23. Pingback: Slow Reading » Blog Archive » Re-reading (Of Books and Bicycles)

  24. Pingback: Re-reading « Classical Bookworm

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