I’ve written about reading before, and while doing so I did touch a tad on the subject of re-reading — in particular, how I feel that in order to get the true measure of a book one needs to read it more than once. I stand by that, and right now I’d like to expand a little bit on why.
I believe that we all hold truths within ourselves, or at least what we consider in a given moment to be a truth. Over time people change, and as we change our truths become different, and our perspectives become different, and the way that we see a text can change radically. While I had my qualms with Well-Read Black Girl as an anthology, I did enjoy the individual essays, and one in particular that comes to mind is “Her Own Best Thing” by Tayari Jones, which is about the vastly different experience she had in reading Tar Baby by Toni Morrison as a junior in college vs. as a professor preparing to teach a class on Toni Morrison fifteen years later. The distance between those two points, temporally, emotionally, and developmentally, meant that she had an entirely different experience when reading the text for the second time.
I’m young enough that I don’t think I have the capacity to fully remember the shape of my life fifteen years ago, let alone a book, but I’m old enough that I can go to ten, and I had the most ridiculous time in a Barnes & Noble a few months ago with a friend as we roamed through the Young Adult paranormal romance section and I remembered some of my more questionable reading choices from my early teens. I loved them at the time, but I cannot deny that my current self thinks that they don’t exactly hold up. That’s the thing about re-reading; it can inform new ways of thinking, but it can also destroy nostalgia, as I re-read a book, or worse, re-watch a movie, and cringe at how casually I was able to let things like transphobia and antisemitism whoosh over my head because I didn’t notice them. I don’t think that disillusionment is a bad thing, but it remains painful every time it happens. Reality often tarnishes memories.
All the same, re-reading doesn’t have to be negative, and as I said before, I consider it to be essential. Every time that we engage with a text we are looking at it with different eyes, from a different lens, and are affected by what we have experienced between the readings. Intertextuality, the relationship between literary texts, is at play here as well. Take, for example, Pride by Ibi Zoboi. The YA novel calls itself a “Pride and Prejudice Remix” and necessarily draws heavily from the original 1814 novel by Jane Austen. At the same time, the main character, Zuri Benitez, is heavily influenced by the book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A re-reading of Between the World and Me after reading Pride yields a new sense of how the book is influential and interpretable to a youth who read the text. A re-reading of Pride after reading Between the World and Me yields new insights into Zuri’s motivations in wanting to attend Howard University, as well as into her general philosophy.
Re-reading can also help to solidify concepts and ideas. I find this to be the case particularly in the case of non-fiction, and/or philosophical texts. There are often layers of meaning to pick apart, which, whether or not they were the intention of the author, have real teachable moments for the reader. Whenever I wish to deeply engage with the subject of a text out of academic or professional interest, I always make sure to read it twice in order that I may fully grasp the material. I often feel that, in order to fully conceptualize an idea and first internalize whether I agree on principle and second integrate it into my worldview, I need more than one interaction with said idea. Often when I’m tired, or hungry, or distracted, it is easy to let my eyes simply glaze over the page, and I don’t actually engage fully with the text on a first reading, which necessitates back tracking. Other times what I’m reading can be psychologically and/or emotionally taxing because it deals with traumatic and triggering issues, and so I need to take breaks from the reading and come back to it when I am in a better headspace. In this way, re-reading is also a form of self-care.
Re-reading can also be a form of introspection. In the case of Tayari Jones, she was able to learn more about herself and how she saw the world in the past and in the present based on her two distinct readings of Tar Baby. The series of books that I have read and re-read most often is the Harry Potter series, and I have annotations in my older copies that go back years. I have over a decade of documentation about what I have thought over the years about the adventures of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and I consider it to be a fascinating window into the psyche of my past self. I believe that my perception of my past informs my present, and so that aspect of re-reading is one that I supremely value.
I have to say though, that even as I make this argument for why re-reading is critical, I often find myself wishing for more time to read new books. There is simply so much out there that I would love to engage with, and I know that I don’t have time to read and re-read it all because there simply isn’t enough time in existence, especially with my additional priorities of work and school that take up the bulk of my time. What I spend time on therefore becomes an incredibly difficult choice. Often what gets sacrificed is sleep, which I also know is not the healthiest pattern in the world, especially since sleep always wins in the end.
In any case, I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts about re-reading, because I do find this conundrum to be one that I think about a great deal and I’m interested to hear other perspectives.