By Steve Donoghue
I remember the sinking feeling I had thirty years ago when I was enjoying an episode of “Seinfeld” right up until the moment when Jerry Seinfeld starts his signature riffing – only this time it was about a subject near to my heart: re-reading books. In the episode, Jerry wails about the “obsession” people have with keeping the books they’ve read, like so many trophies up on shelves. “Have you re-read those books yet, by the way?” he later taunts poor George Costanza. “You know the great thing? When you read ‘Moby-Dick’ the second time, Ahab and the whale become good friends.”
At the time, I heaved a heavy sigh. I’ve been sighing heavily about this particular subject for a long, long time.
An author friend of mine once made one of those infamous “two kinds” comment: there are two kinds of readers – the ones who love rereading, and those who wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. And while it’s not as stark a split as that (it never is, not even the cat people/dog people split), it’s still a strange divide among readers. Some prize the joy of a 100% certain good reading experience so much that they prioritize re-reading in order to guarantee it – really loved the thrill of reading “Red Dragon”? The surest way to get it again is to read “Red Dragon” again. While others feel the sting of the dreaded FOMO – fear of missing out – so much that every minute they’re spending rereading “Oliver Twist” they’re also nervously twitching with curiosity about whatever new piece of steaming hot pig-poop Sally Rooney just published.
I’ve known both sides of that dichotomy myself. For many, many years, I was off traveling with my dogs to all parts of the globe, often for months at a time in unmapped places in the back of beyond – no Baedeker’s, no clean hotels, no roofs at all against the elements. My dogs and I had the best times imaginable, but there was no thought, no possibility, of going into bookshops and stocking up on the latest goodies. Books are heavy. Books are expensive. Books are useless for cooking food and can only be used AS food by passing goats or enterprising porcupines.
Which isn’t to say I traveled without books – far from it. I had a small handful of books wedged into the bottom of my footlocker, and they were my constant companions on land and sea, in endless deserts and along the foothills of snow-capped mountains. Horace. Catullus. Dante. Chaucer – these and a small group of others were always with me, so my long years of traveling were marked exclusively by re-reading.
But I’ve also experienced the other side of things: as a book critic and Books section editor, I’ve very much felt the FOMO of knowing there were tantalizing new releases coming out next week, next month, next season. Like all of my editorial brethren, I’ve spent time wondering who out there got which advance galley copy first, who I might contact for a galley copy of my own, what the very earliest reactions to some controversial new title would be.
And in both cases, on both sides of this divide, I was doing a whole lot of rereading. When I was traveling, the rereading was obvious: I had no other books and wanted no other books. But even when I’m dealing with new and forthcoming books, rereading is still an enormous part of the process.
My goal when reading any new release that I might end up reviewing is to provide my readers with the best possible impression of the book I can. New books are requesting their time, their attention, and their money – I want to be as much help as I can in narrowing down which books deserve those things. Some of that involves understanding the raw proceedings of what I’m talking about, of course – critics aren’t good to anybody if they stumble right out of the gate at the “what’s it about” stage. But another part of the job I try to account for is the passage of time, the changing of first impressions in to settled impressions. And for that, I very often rely on rereading.
I’ll burn through some new release as soon as I get my hands on it, even though it doesn’t come to bookstores for months. Usually that first reading will be done at speed, without note-taking, purely for impressions. Then I’ll set it aside and turn my attention to the more pressing matter of imminent releases, and I’ll only return to it months later – for a slower and more methodical re-read, pencil in hand, trying to capture as much of the experience of the book as possible while still remembering my first impressions.
That’s all rereading, and for me, it’s invaluable. Nabokov once wrote that “a good reader, a major reader, active and creative reader, is a rereader” – he often said books could only really be apprehended when reread. Of course not many people have that kind of time, especially if they’re dead-set on reading lots of books in a given year. But even readers who don’t have that kind of goal are still busily learning and changing over time, right? Ideally, every book you read changes you in some way, even if it’s just a small way.
That’s the real value of rereading: you come to the old book as a new person. “Reading a book is like rewriting it yourself,” Angela Carter once wrote. “You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.” To me, that goes double for rereading, no matter what Jerry Seinfeld says.