This month’s reading theme—rereading, which is to say reading books we’ve read before and want to read again—has been my favorite theme of all in the 6+ years we’ve been doing monthly reading themes.
Rereading books. I used to do it a lot as a kid. I read Charlotte’s Web (checked out of the library, I only recently bought my own copy) seven times when I was a kid, and I read The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton many times, though I don’t remember just how many. But as an adult, I rarely reread. That changed four years ago, when I read Artful, by Ali Smith. In her essay “On Time,” she says:
We do treat books surprisingly lightly in contemporary culture. We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once. . . . Great books are adaptable; they alter with us as we alter in life, they renew themselves as we change and re-read them at different times in our lives. You don’t step into the same story twice.”
Rereading has always seemed like a bit of a luxury to me. Why reread, when I could be learning something new?
But after reading Ali, not only do I feel like I have permission to reread, I feel like I have an obligation! And I’ve been rereading quite a bit more ever since.
But this month, this lovely month immersing myself in reading books I’ve already read and loved, has been a grand experience (if far too short).
I started with Dragonflight, the first book in the Pern trilogy by Anne McCaffrey. I read this in the 1980s, and I still loved it in 2020. I started the second book, Dragonquest, but it was enough different from the first that the compulsion was gone, and I was able to put it down and move on to something else. Short month.
My first nonfiction was Reflections on Aging. It’s almost a coffee table book, and it is perhaps a bit fluffy, but it also has good wisdom sprinkled throughout. I will keep it to read again in a few years—different years deliver different messages. I followed this up with Fifty Day of Solitude, by Doris Grumbach. I loved this when I read it in 2002. But this month, it was—okay. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t move me. Really? Doris Grumbach? But I’ve loved all her nonfiction! So I tried another, Life in a Day this time. Ah, here is the Grumbach I love.
Why do I still love the one and not the other? In another 10 years, might the books switch places?
After Grumbach for nonfiction, I picked up 84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. Now here is a book I loved even more on the second read than the first. A book I think everyone should read (or at least all booklovers—also people who enjoy epistolary works). A book that can be easily read of an afternoon (97 pages)—perfect for either snowstorm or sunny day.
After revisiting fantasy with McCaffrey, I read Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen, a light book with touches of magic that I loved on the first read. The reread left me disappointed. I remembered so much more than was there (memory being a very faulty thing). I followed this up with Kindred, by Octavia Butler. This one did not disappoint.
What I love about the rereading theme, is discovering what stays with you and what doesn’t. And yet again, maybe it doesn’t right now, but will again in the future. Some places in yourself you come back to again and again and again. For me, these are the land/environment, religion/spirituality, and community (friends, family, or faith). The books that continue to captivate me even after decades nearly always roam in these areas.
A month of rereading is like coming home. It’s like rediscovering yourself. Yes! I believed this way back then!
Two years ago exactly, in February 2018, I spent the month focusing on black writers because I was appalled at the few number (1) I had read the prior year. That month of reading changed my reading habits. My reading is far more diverse now, and it feels weird when I’m reading only white authors.
I think my February of rereading is going to have a similar impact, and I’ll give even more value to rereading than I have since reading Ali Smith’s essay.
Because you just never read the same book twice.