To re-read, or not to re-read

by David Alm on July 20, 2012

Philip Roth once described his nightly routine as one involving dinner, a walk, and then reading. He said that he’d been re-reading authors he loved when he was young, and I admired him for it. But I also thought: Why would anyone want to re-read something? There’s so much one hasn’t read. Re-reading seemed not like a waste of time, exactly, but also not the best use of whatever time we might have at the end of a long day. For every book you re-read, there’s another book (or magazine) you haven’t read, that you’re not reading.

I was in my 20s when I read that about Philip Roth, and now I’m in my late 30s. And now, I find myself re-reading books I read years ago. Sometimes I’m looking for the intellectual epiphanies those books unlocked in me during my 20s, epiphanies that have grown far fewer and further between as I’ve aged, settled into my ways, and become more concerned with the day-to-day matters of living than I am with big questions of Meaning, Identity, and Love. Sometimes I’m giving a book that had disappointed me a second chance. Sometimes I’m reading to see if I might have a new perspective on a book now that I’m older, and though not necessarily wiser, at least more experienced. And sometimes, I’m just looking for a good read.

In recent weeks, I’ve picked up three books I’d read sometime in the past 20 years: Age of Iron, by J.M. Coetzee; Patrimony, by Philip Roth; and The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom. I’d read the first two within the past decade, but I hadn’t touched Bloom since college. My reasons for re-reading these three books are all different, and the outcomes have been too. Coetzee’s novel resonated far more this time around than when I first read it, when despite my love of his work at that time, it felt flat. I simply wasn’t tuned in. I re-read Roth’s book because it’s largely about sickness, death, and dying, and for reasons I won’t go into now, those topics have been on my mind. Bloom’s book was hugely influential to me and my cohort during college in the early 1990s, and I wanted to see what it might offer me now, as a teacher, 20 years on.

I don’t regret re-reading any of these books — and to be truthful, I’m still reading Bloom’s. (It’s a big book.) I don’t feel I’ve neglected any other books or magazine features, even though I have, and suspect that I’ll keep up the habit of raiding my own bookshelves for company on the subway.

But still, I wonder: Is this the intellectual equivalent of ceasing to buy new clothes — or for that matter, making new friends — after the age of 35? Have I grown stale?

I’m inclined to say no, but then again, I’m also pretty set in my ways.

Job July 20, 2012 at 6:52 am

I have been re-reading Proulx’s Shipping News every year since I bought it in 1995. No regrets and I am still enjoying it. But then I am 55+ ….

David July 20, 2012 at 7:28 am

Since making peace with the fact that there will always be more books I haven’t read than books I have, I’ve felt more free to reread. The three biggies I’ve returned to have had an important combination of qualities: each was pleasurable/energizing to read the first time, and each gave the sense that there was much more to be revealed in rereading. Those biggies were Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Each could be profitably reread a third, fourth, fifth time. Each took a long time to reread. But I am very glad to have deepened my relationships with them.

R. Droste July 20, 2012 at 2:06 pm

You are so right, David. It’s not about “making new friends”. It’s about deepening old ones, a far greater challenge.

David Alm July 21, 2012 at 7:01 am

This is a great way to look at it: deepening old relationships. Still, I can’t help but think of all the new friendships that aren’t being made as a result. Can we find a way to reconcile the two into a way of life and approach to reading that allows us to both deepen old friendships and make ones, i.e., stay intellectually fresh?

Sure we can, but there are only so many hours in a day, and we only have so much time for reading. And that’s the problem in a nutshell, I think.

Brian Alm July 21, 2012 at 9:03 am

I have re-read many, some of them several times, and have done so since I was a kid. My first re-read was Swiss Family Robinson, which I re-read four or five times. “Great, ever fruitful, are the words of those who in their day were men.” That used to be carved on the wall of the college library reading room. I pondered over the meaning of that for some time, and finally realized that I’d understood it since I was about 12. I see books on my library shelf that immediately bring to mind the experience of reading them — and re-reading them — 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago, like a reunion of old friends. I wonder how that would work on an iPad or Kindle.

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