Is Rereading Necessary?

Don’t have literary one-night stands. Go back again and again; the really good ones get better and better.
(Beowulf on the Beach by Jack Murnighan, 2009, p. 360)

I am currently in the middle of How to Read a Book (Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren, 1972), and it is proving to offer plenty to contemplate. Now, I haven’t yet reached the specific discussion regarding novels and short stories, which may be treated with in a slightly different manner than the expository (works conveying knowledge, i.e., non-fiction) material Adler & Van Doren deal with for the majority of the book, but in this early part, I was particularly struck by the following statement:

In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away. (36)


You will have a much better chance of understanding it on a second reading, but that requires you to have read the book through at least once. (37)

Thus implying that any difficult work will be automatically reread.

Some years back I read the first portion of The Well Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (Susan Wise Bauer, 2003). Bauer advocated for three readings of a book. (Relying only on a faulty memory, I believe she cited Adler & Van Doren as one of her references.)

Before I go further, I should clarify that Adler & Van Doren—and presumably Bauer as well—are discussing books (and essays, stories, articles, etc.) that are being read for understanding rather than for knowledge (facts) or entertainment. They acknowledge that such reading material exists and has its purpose and value, but does not require the depth of reading they are seeking to encourage.

We readers are a voracious bunch. Not only do we tend to devour every book in sight, we compile lists and more lists. Sometimes even lists of lists. (Guilty.) If we don’t create them ourselves, we clip them from other sources—1001 Books to Read Before You Die, MLA’a Top 100 Books of the 20th Century, Nobel Prize Winners, Lifetime Reading Plans—they go on and on. In our hearts, we know that we will never actually get to every book we ever wish to read.

And now we are being told that not only should we read these books, if we wish to truly understand them, truly ingest them, we should read them more than once?

I am a rereader. I always have been. I can think of plenty of “great books” which I’ve read that I would like to read again. But the cold hard truth is that, unless I suddenly become independently wealthy (ha!) and never need to work again, I will never have time to read every single book on my list once much less multiple times. And yet…

…[Gravity’s Rainbow is] a near-impenetrable mangrove of interconnected elements, sprawling and expanding, almost metastasizing, to the point where unless you’re keeping notes on a graph-paper wall board, you’re almost sure to lose your bearings.

The alternative is one I stumbled upon by accident while bedridden on vacation with a nasty cold and Gravity’s Rainbow as my only book: I did nothing but read the bugger for four straight days; then the second I finished, I turned from the last page to the first (as I recommend you do with Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom too) and read the whole thing again.
(Beowulf on the Beach, p.342)

I finished Divine Comedy last summer after over three months of reading and my first thought was “I have to read these again.” Thinking about it recently, I should have read it twice through on my original read—once with and once without reading the endnotes. It was difficult, it was deep, it was allegorical, it referenced so many things and people I didn’t know about: to even begin to get the whole picture, it cries out to be read more than once. On the other hand, I contrast this with what might be considered “easier” classics, Jane Eyre, for instance. When I read Jane Eyre many years ago, I had no difficulty following the story. I was completely engaged and disappointed that it had to come to an end. At first glance it would seem that I could place Jane Eyre on a different list than Divine Comedy—books that don’t need reread and those that do—but further reflection suggests that indeed Jane Eyre also merits reread. What is it about, after all? Is it a simple romance story, of a governess meeting her true love? Or should it be read as an early feminist work, about a woman independently seeking to make her way in world, on her own terms? Maybe neither of these is quite right; maybe it is a gothic horror in the tradition of Ann Radcliff and Horace Walpole. Of course, given that each reader approaches a work with their own perspectives and background, and that these change over the course of one’s life, perhaps the ability to view a novel from many different perspectives is not in and of itself enough to demand rereading.

I am hoping that Adler & Van Doren clarify this issue as I continue through the book. Are they primarily advocating rereads for works which are too difficult on the first pass, or for anything considered “great?” (Which of course could get into the messy definition of what “great” is.)

What do you think? Do you see value in reading great works of literature—those from which you seek understanding—more than once? Or do you feel the pressure from all the titles you still want to read–that it is more important to read many than few?

Is rereading necessary?

9 thoughts on “Is Rereading Necessary?”

  1. First, those books you’re reading (about literature) sound fascinating.

    Second, I’ve little experience in this, but yes — I’d say rereading is a must. I’ve just begun to discover how necessary it is, in receiving the nuances buried in great literature — the undertones.

    Obviously, you can’t read every book three times. 🙂 But select your favorites, or one that made you struggle. Example: I’m rereading Pride and Prejudice because I didn’t appreciate it the first time. I want to give it another shot, to appreciate it.

    I think it’s a balance. Don’t reread everything, but reread select titles.

    I’ll be re-reading Little Women simply because it will feel like going home.

    1. I actually read Beowulf on the Beach about a year ago and found it very enjoyable. Murnighan discusses 50 different pieces of literature, each with their own chapter, but does so in a very entertaining way.

      I have a number of books I like to reread that are “going home” books, including Pride and Prejudice and Anne of Green Gables. I agree though, it is a matter of balance, or else we will go crazy trying to read (and reread) everything we want to. I can also think of classics that I don’t really wish to reread, even if there might be value to it. Sometimes once is enough!

  2. Before I started my blog and discovered secondhand bookstores, I was a huge rereader. I read favorites like the Harry Potter series, Pride and Prejudice, and To Kill a Mockingbird over and over. Now, though, I’ve allowed the pressure to get to me. My TBR pile is gigantic, and I usually speed through books, so I could cross them off an “important” list. Your post really put a lot of things into perspective for me. 🙂

    1. I’m trying to avoid creating my own pressure, although sometimes it isn’t easy. I have a very lengthy list of books to read myself. I suppose part of it is asking ourselves why we are reading. If it is just to get through a list, are we really getting everything out of our books that we can? I have a lot of books I want to reread simply because I’m not sure I ever did anything more than speed through them and so I feel like I missed the best part of them. I hope you can find the balance so that you don’t feel as if you are reading under pressure.

  3. I think rereading is great, Amanda, but the time invested in multiple reads is always time that will be “taken away” from new reading experiences. All depends on what you want out of a read, I guess. I’m kind of in the middle of slowly reading through some old favorites these days (maybe 1-2 per year, so very slowly, ha), though, and have found the experience totally rewarding.

    1. I love revisiting old favorites, although I sometimes do so just by flipping though to my favorite passages–one way to save time, I suppose! What is interesting me most at the moment is the idea of revisiting a book at some distance after the original read, to compare my reactions to the book over time–how have I changed, how has my understanding changed? I also think there are some books that are so dense they almost demand rereads. However, as you say any reread takes time away from a new book, and the question all readers must decide is where our own personal balance lies.

  4. I wish I could begin rereading again. As it is, the only thing I’m rereading is the Bible. I’m reassessing what reading and books mean to me. It always boils down to quality over quantity, but not quality as labeled by others, but as resonates with me. Paring down choices, purging down must-reads, there is no other way to be able to stop and smell the roses (i.e. rereading).

    1. With limited reading time, it is really hard to decide what to read, and it is so easy to decide there is no time for rereads. However, sometimes I just can’t help myself!

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