On the Value of Repeat Readings

pleasures

“If most of us read too fast, most of us also read too many books and are unwisely reluctant to return to something we think we already know. I use ‘think’ there advisedly, because as my examples show, a first encounter with a worthwhile book is never a complete encounter, and we are usually in error to make it a final one. But those who want to have read, who are checking books off their ‘bucket list,’ will find the thought of rereading even more repulsive than the thought of reading slowly and ruminatively. And yet rereading a book can often be a more significant, dramatic, and, yes, new experience than encountering an unfamiliar work.” (128)

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So let me ask you: when was the last time you reread a book?

If you’re anything like me, the answer is either “a long time ago,” or more likely, “never.” The first time I reread a book was only last year, and the book was C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which if you’ve read, I trust you know why it’s a book worth rereading. In all my reading experience (all 18 or so years of it!) I was never able to appreciate why people reread books. Though I love to read, I thought, once you read a book, you’re done with it; what more can you get out of repeat readings? But then I heard this advice from one of my favorite professors at Georgetown: “If you’ve only read a book once, you haven’t read it at all.” The professor was Father James Schall, who was most likely quoting Aquinas. I remember being impressed by the truth in this observation: that to truly know a book, one must read it more than once.

Now, I should add that this applies especially to the best books. (If you think these terms aren’t valid because taste in books is completely subjective, though I grant that there is some subjectivity, I ask you to consider whether anyone would make a serious argument for why say, a Dan Brown bestseller, is superior to a War and Peace or Crime and Punishment). So the best books are usually thought to be so for good reason – namely because they are so rich in meaning, construction, and beauty, that to read them once only is not enough to appreciate all they have to offer. (To take an example which I guess only a guy would take, think of how many people often claim to be able to discover and appreciate new things every time they watch “The Godfather” again.) This realization motivates me to read such books again. And more than this, it motivates me to read them again as I get older and find myself in different stages of life, because think of it: as you get older, you change – you won’t be the same person 10 years from now that you are today – and so each time you read it, you often experience a book in an entirely different way than from when you first read it!

So I was reaffirmed and encouraged anew when I read the above in Alan Jacobs’s delightful The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford, 2011). I hope it encourages you, too, to take up a book that merits a reread, and read it again!

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