The Joys and Perils of Rereading

Most of us probably begin as re-readers. As children, if we’re lucky, we have a collection of picture books that we read over and over again as we attempt to master the tricky beast that is language. If it’s English language, then it’s finicky as well. Repetition and familiarity help the learning process along. Slowly words become familiar, and knowledge of the text helps guide the fledgling reader. Some kids, though, grow out of that urge to re-read. I one hundred percent never did.

There’s something so incredibly comforting about revisiting a beloved story. It’s like visiting old friends, finding them simultaneously unchanged by the years and yet somehow also different. When you reread a book, you bring a new perspective, changed by the intervening years. Though the book has not altered, you have, full of new knowledge and new experiences.

When I was a kid, I watched The Little Mermaid, and I identified with Ariel’s quest for a cute boyfriend and her frustration that her dad tried to stop her from having everything that she wants. As an adult, I’m #TeamDad, and I absolutely think he was right to try to stop her, though clearly he went about it in an ill-advised fashion. Mistakes were absolutely made on both sides here. However, despite what my young self thought, giving up your voice for the potential of hooking up with a crush is an absolutely terrible trade. The story itself hasn’t changed, but a mature perspective results in my interpretation shifting.

Sometimes, as in the case of The Little Mermaid, I’ll never love the thing as much when I return to it as an adult. Some things don’t hold up. (To be clear, though, I do still like The Little Mermaid, but I’ll never have that emotional connection to it ever again.) In other instances, the dated material is now so flagrantly ist that I can’t really even enjoy it anymore.

Re-reading can be fraught with peril, because sometimes the waters you once thought fine are now choppy and filled with garbage. It can be hard too to risk the chance that something once beloved might be tainted in your memory. I’m not surprised some people choose not to re-read or to re-watch.

Me, though, I think it’s worth it for the times when a book or movie just improves with each watching. There’s something beautiful about growing alongside a favorite book or film. For example, I first saw A Room with a View when I was too young to really comprehend it; I had too black and white a morality then and condemned Lucy’s choices. With age, I watched it again, and I completely understood where Lucy was coming from (and a greater knowledge of the era didn’t hurt either). That has been my favorite film for many years now, and if I’d never given it a second chance, I would have missed out on that.

Partly I find re-reading crucial because it’s the only way I can really know for sure how I feel about a book. Something may completely delight me the first time, but it’s only if it’s still amazing on reads two to infinity that I know it’s a book I need to have in my life forever. On my first read, I can be unaware of a book’s flaws if I’m caught up in the emotions the first time. When I love something on first read, I rarely note much of the craft that has gone into it because I’m too in love with the characters. This means that sometimes I re-read books and prose I didn’t initially notice now irritates me (*cough*Sarah J. Maas*cough*).

So yeah, re-reading something you loved and finding that you no longer love it is disappointing for sure. BUT there’s also the chance that the book might be so much more than you realized. Caught up in emotions, there’s also the chance that you missed lovely prose or complexities or failed to see how beautifully the author laid out the plot. There’s so much more to be discovered when you travel back through familiar territory.

Aside from what I already stated, I also re-read because hype can seriously mess with my perspective or because my resentment/fear of where a story was going colored a whole book. As much as I’d like to be rock solid in spite of hype, I find that it really messes with my reading of books.

In fact, a scenario like that inspired this post. I re-read Dumplin’ before starting Puddin’ because I couldn’t remember any of the secondary characters. On my first read, I thought Dumplin was great, but I wasn’t really emotionally invested, probably because everyone had told me I would LOVE it, so then my expectations got impossible or I girded my emotional loins out of some stubborn instinct to prove people wrong or I don’t know what. On my re-read, I fucking loved this book. It’s a five star book that I four-starred because first reads can be really tricky.

This can also happen for books in series. Sometimes a middle book is a struggle because, until you know the larger context, a cliffhanger can feel truly unforgivable. Or, I’m so certain the author is going to do X thing I hate, that I can’t enjoy actually reading the book, and my experience is somewhat ruined by the time I know they didn’t do that. Even if they did do the terrible thing, there’s a chance that on a re-read, prepared for the eventuality, I can actually sit back and appreciate the author’s choices and the story as is.

For me, there’s so much potential joy in re-reading that it greatly outweighs the negatives. Plus, I’ve re-read 6 books so far this year and only two of them have dropped in my estimation (and I still liked both), so those seem decent odds to me.

How do you guys feel about re-reading?

3 responses to “The Joys and Perils of Rereading”

  1. Natalie says:

    I love rereading and always have. (Seriously. I reread Harry Potter before every single book and movie release, and still read it about every other year or so.) There is something so comforting about revisiting favorite books; it’s like seeing old friends.

  2. Nori says:

    I love rereading. I don’t do it as often as I like. And it’s weirdly become my determining factor in whether I should buy a book now. I ask myself, “Will I read this more than once?” I’ve also become addicted to audio books in the last couple of years, and I love experiencing books I already know in a new context like that. Like was already said, I’m currently rereading Harry Potter (on audio) and it just makes me feel good. Revisiting a book can be more than returning to the words; it can be a return to how I was feeling the last time I read something, and I love that part of it too (most of the time). I totally fell you on the Little Mermaid.

  3. Leah says:

    As a kid, I re-read picture books and short stories. As I grew older, I was of the “read one and done” type. I’ve never had a problem watching certain movies and TV shows over and over though–I’ve seen Fellowship of the Ring about fifty times, 13 at the movie theater. But I’ve actually started revisiting books I read a few years ago and was surprised to find new things there or things that didn’t work for me now that did then. It amazes me that you can rediscover or remember things you’ve forgotten with going back. I love that.

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