marginalia

Marginalia: On Rereading

Rereading favorite books is, among the readerly or writerly sorts, a popular and polarizing topic for many reasons. For simplicity, let’s resort to that most-used aphorism: too many books, too little time.

Yet, between the many books released daily and touted as the new [insert your last best read] and your own ever-growing to-read list, the decision to revisit an older favorite gets harder and harder. Readers like me suffer from “FOMO” or “fear of missing out” on all the other amazing books that we’d love to read, should read, have already bought to read and so on.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Intellectually, I get that rereading certain great books is a noble ideal. I agree also that, for the average reader, it is not possible to pick up all the nuances in a first read. And, I’m old enough to realize that certain books will unveil different meanings to us at different life junctures.

The recent series on bibliomemoirs has also been a terrific reminder of the power of revisiting certain life-changing books. In fact, a book rarely acquires that “life-changing” quality in the first read because we’re still working our way into it and not absorbing all the truths and meanings that are available from it. As Susan Sontag said so rightly:

No book is worth reading that isn’t worth rereading.

And, as Nabokov is reputed to have said:

A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.

Recently, I’d started trying to convince myself with this particular argument: We listen to favorite songs, watch favorite movies and even contemplate favorite works of art again and again — as many times as possible. Yes, these are not as big an investment of time as reading an entire book again. But, if we look at the best writers as the voices of their times or generations, surely we ought to be paying more attention and revisiting what they have to say through their best works? Rather than oohing and aahing over the zillionth click-bait cute animal or Upworthy video? Or, deceiving ourselves constantly into thinking that we know and understand a lot more about our world because of said viral videos and 24/7 real-time news about political crises and natural disasters in faraway countries? *gets off soapbox*

Thinking back on the last book I’d reread, I realize that it must have been in my late-teens with the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. And, that was because, while on vacation, I had found myself with no other entertainment besides a book I’d just finished reading.

So, about a week or so ago, I started to reread a book that I haven’t touched since high school: Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’.

My experience so far has been a pleasant surprise. Angelou’s life story, as recounted in this memoir, came back to me mostly within the first few pages. I was even able to recall the perfectly-timed humor of certain key scenes. What I had forgotten, though, was the musicality of Angelou’s voice even when she’s using simple, everyday language. I had also forgotten how she never gives in to any  kind of rage, bitterness or anger in relating the difficulties of most of the characters’  lives. It is no wonder that this book is still taught in schools today — it is a beautiful illustration of the critically-required skill of rising above everything that life throws at you.

So, getting back into this book has proved to be a different kind of immersion than my usual first-reads. Rediscovering familiar parts that I had loved the first time around has been like a welcome warmth because of both the anticipation and participation being more heightened from a previous knowing, however hazy that may be. Finding new meanings that I had either missed the first time or forgotten since then is like being blessed with unexpected gifts. And, deepening an appreciation for Angelou’s seemingly effortless literary virtuosity is like getting a free creative writing masterclass. Here’s one example (and this is not even the best of her church scenes, just the quickest bit that I could type up):

Other voices joined the near shriek of Mrs Duncan. They crowded around and tenderized the tone. Hand-claps snapped in the roof and solidified the beat. When the song reached its peak in sound and passion, a tall, thin man, who had been kneeling behind the altar all the while, stood up and sang with the audience for a few bars. He stretched out his long arms and grasped the platform. It took some time for the singers to come off their level of exaltation, but the minister stood resolute until the song unwound like a child’s playtoy and lay quieted in the aisles.

Inspired, I’m planning to try for at least 1 rereading every other month this year, starting with my favorite works. With these, I know it’s going to be like returning, after a long time, to a former home. There are, of course, all the familiar old memories and it’s relatively easy to burrow back in. Yet, somehow, everything is new and different because of having been away for so long. It’s just the best of both — the familiar and the new. In time, I might also return to those books I discarded part-way through either out of an inability to appreciate or out of a real frustration. With these, I want to check whether my abandonment of them was more a question of bad timing than anything else — as they say, certain books are meant to be read at certain times of our lives.

How about you? Are you a rereader? What was your favorite reread and why? If you were to pick a book to reread next, which will it be?

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6 thoughts on “Marginalia: On Rereading

  1. Thank you for your recommendation, Jenny. I think I read something of hers but will for sure do so now. Some other re-reads of mine are Emily L by Marguerite Duras, Up Above the World by Paul Bowles, and Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr. I always think it ends– Bring stones. Something terrible happened here. But it’s much better.

    “Stop, she wanted to call out.Stop for a minute. Look through the gates and see the lighted house. An accident has happened here. Remember the place. Bring stones.”

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    1. That’s a powerful ending and I haven’t even read the book.

      All 3 of your re-reads here are on my to-read list. I’ve read other works by Duras and Bowles, but not these. And nothing by Doerr yet.

      By the way, if you ever want to write a review on one of your favorite re-reads, we’d be happy to consider it. 🙂

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    1. Phyllis – Thanks for the comment.

      I’ve only read one book by Brookner, ‘Hotel du Lac’ and keep meaning to go back. I have read a lot of Penelope Fitzgerald and I think, if you like Brookner, you will really enjoy Fitzgerald if you haven’t read her already. She led a very interesting life – an alcoholic husband, bouts with homelessness, then, her first book published at age 58. She was, though, quite the scholar and historian and went on to win the Booker for her novel, ‘Offshore’, where she used her own experiences of living on a houseboat on the Thames.

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  2. I guess I get enough re-reading with having to teach certain books. But, maybe I’ll try to find a book that I want to re-read instead of have to re-read and see how that goes. Enjoyed that little mini-rant or soapbox thing. Do more of that.

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    1. Andy, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Cliché because it’s true.

      As for the soapbox thing – we’ll see. I don’t do that so much in my *ahem* old age as I used to in the younger days.

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