rereading

A Case for Re-Reading by Deidra Dallas

I am an avid reader. Like I assume is the case with most avid readers, I am also an avid re-reader. Don’t get me wrong, falling in love with a new book is a joy that cannot be properly encapsulated into words. Falling in love with a new author is even more joyous. There is something mysterious and heartwarming and awe inspiring about new books.

The Little House series were the first books I remember LOVING. (Bold and italics and capitals 100% used for full effect there.) They were all that I had never realized books could be. I reveled in deciphering the words and discovering for myself this story of Laura, her Pa and Ma, and her sisters. 

There is something mysterious and heartwarming and awe inspiring about new books.

But then they were over, and there was no more Little House, and I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. How could they just be over? Finishing a book is more heartbreaking than almost anything I’ve ever encountered (unless it’s finishing a book series). It’s like simultaneously having to attend the funeral of/go through a breakup with 20 people. 

The only way to soothe yourself is to lose yourself in other books, books like Anne of Green Gables and Harry Potter and hundreds and hundreds of others. I could not begin to tally for you the number of books I have consumed in my life. I have studied and read and re-read until I’m sure the number of minutes I have spent with a book in my nose far outnumbers the total number of minutes I have done just about anything else. 

Re-reading is the other way I have found to soothe myself after finishing a much loved book or series. I find on the re-read I discover new character traits and motivations or little turns of phrases I never noticed before. Re-reading allows me to re-experience what I first loved in a whole new way.

In my literature courses, I was taught to re-read -- you read something the first time for the content and then after that you read it to analyze. Society, though, has taught me that re-reading is something of which I should be ashamed. If you Google, you will find dozens upon dozens of articles which claim that re-reading is a waste of your brain space and that you should be expanding your mind by experiencing new things, new authors, new themes, new characters. 

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They aren’t wrong, but I can’t seem to stop either. Often, I re-read when I am in need of an escape. I may be stressed or sad or just plain tired and I don’t have brain space to consume or understand something new, so I turn to old friends. 

I have re-read Little House and Harry Potter and Anne I couldn’t tell you how many times. Harry I have read annually for the last 20 plus years and I wrote extensive research papers on them in grad school. I can practically recite them. 

This year I decided upon a new re-reading method -- audiobooks. I have a weird thing with audiobooks -- I can only listen to books I have previously read. I find that my mind tends to wander when I’m listening instead of actively engaged in reading and so only if I know the book can I pick up the threads of the story again when I have mentally wandered while listening. Naturally, then, I began with Harry Potter. Next, I took up Anne

And here’s the funny thing. I love the first three books, always have. I am head over heels in love with Gilbert Blythe, and I have no qualms about admitting that publicly. The next four books, with the exception of Anne’s House of Dreams, have considerably less Gilbert, and 6 and 7 even have considerably less Anne. I enjoy the stories, but I do not love them. 

The final book in the series, Rilla of Ingleside, I must admit I have suffered through when I have tried to read it in the past. The World War I theme was interesting, but it was so far outside the world of Anne (which is admittedly the point) that as a young person, I felt no connection to the story or the characters. Rilla Blythe irritated me, and I desperately yearned for more of Anne and Gilbert’s thoughts on the horror of seeing their sons march off to war instead of their live-in Susan Baker’s. So, upon my listen, I fully expected to feel the same. 

Re-reading allows me to re-experience what I first loved in a whole new way.

But, here’s what happened -- I sobbed like a baby while hearing this particular story read aloud. 

I never once had shed a tear when it came to any of the Anne series (excepting Matthew’s death). But this time when Jem left Dog Monday at the train station, when Rilla read Walter’s last letter home before his death, when little Bruce drowned his kitten in hopes that the sacrifice would bring Jem home, and particularly when Little Dog Monday greeted his returning soldier at the end of the war, I could not contain my tears. 

And they weren’t just tears. I did that particular kind of cry where you are trying not to cry too loudly and so you are making this horribly odd sucking sound in the back of your throat while tears stream down your face. I still have not figured out why. 

Why this time -- this tenth or eleventh time that I am reliving this story -- why did it affect me so much? Was it just hearing it instead of reading it? But no, many, many books that I have read for myself have made me cry. I admit that listening gave it a different kind of poignancy, but I do not think that was it. 

I think I’m...older. I’ve grown up since the last time I read this book, and although the protagonist is a 15 year old girl at the beginning of the war and I was much closer to 15 the first time I followed her story, I can understand at 31 what I could not understand at 15. The tragedy of life, the fear of the possibility of this kind of war repeating itself again, the unforgettable knowledge that death is permanent and infects everyone -- all of that is real to me now. 

I used to think that I would only find growth by reading new things, writing new things, experiencing new things. This is not false -- the path to adulthood is paved with new things, and I rejoice in finding and learning them. But when you experience new things, you grow and change, you become new again, which means you can never look at your old life exactly the same way. You don’t relive the past, I would never suggest that, you just learn to look at past experiences differently and they color how you handle the future. 

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Or to borrow a Rilla quote, “It's strange - isn't it - They have been two terrible years - and yet I have a queer feeling of thankfulness for them - as if they had brought me something very precious in all their pain. I wouldn't want to go back and be the girl I was two years ago not even if I could. Not that I think I've made any wonderful progress - but I'm not quite the selfish frivolous little doll I was then. I suppose I had a soul then...but I didn't know it. I know it now - and that is worth a great deal - worth all the suffering of the past few years.” 

My soul, spirit, inner self, whatever you’d like to call it, had never had to do much growing. In the last 5 years, though, it has grown a lot -- and it hurt. A lot. But, I wouldn’t trade it. Maybe it wasn’t World War I, but it was something, and because of it I have a whole new outlook.

So, I no longer feel guilty for indulging in a little re-read now and again, for everything old is made new again when we come at it with new eyes, a new life. I guess, in a way, we aren’t ever really re-reading. We’re simply getting the pleasure of reading a story for the first time again with our fresh souls. It is truly one of the most wonderfully mysterious, heart warming, and awe inspiring experiences one could ever imagine.