Erin O’Connor is thinking out loud about rereading at her blog Critical Mass. An English teacher, she has some particularly interesting things to say about the differences between rereading for pleasure and rereading for work:
I don’t usually reread because there is so much out there in the world that I am eager to read for the first time. I’ve been gluttonous about books since I was very small, and I’ve never lost that kid-in-a-candy-shop feeling I used to get as a child, sitting in front of shelves full of books, almost overwhelmed by the readerly goodness that was bound between their covers. A family friend once gave me a book binge as a birthday present, and recalls a nine-year-old me sitting on the floor in front of the young adults section in B. Dalton’s, declaring that I was “paralyzed by indecision.”
But not rereading is my private habit in my personal reading life. As an English teacher, rereading is professionally necessary, part of the job, and often a very enjoyable part, too. Academic overspecialization being what it is, most of the books in which I am massively well reread are nineteenth-century English novels: I know my Jane Austen, my Brontes, my Dickens, my Collins, my Gaskell, my Eliot, my Thackeray, my Trollope, my Hardy, and my Conrad inside out, and I know them from teaching them repeatedly to class after class of college students who are more (or less) interested in rounding out their literary knowledge, or, more pragmatically, in knocking off a distribution requirement while easing course schedules heavy in science and math. There are some works I have read and taught too many times. They have become old, stale, too familiar, ironically, to be teachable any more, since to teach a work of literature well, you must strike a difficult balance between knowing that work intimately, and not knowing it so well that it has ceased to surprise you. When a work gets so stale that you cannot respond to it any longer, it’s time to not teach it for the indefinite future. Jane Eyre is one of these for me, as are Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. They’ve been out of rotation for a few years, freshening up for future teacherly use.
But teacherly rereading is hothouse rereading: it’s forced rereading for a particular purpose, not voluntary rereading for the sheer interest and delight of rediscovering or renewing one’s connection with a particular author or work. I had a teacher in graduate school who liked to say that we should all reread George Eliot’s Middlemarch once every five years. His point was that there is so much in that novel that it effectively grows and changes as we do: It’s a different book every five years, because we are different people from one half decade to the next. He was right.
I don’t reread books terribly often, but when I do it’s generally in the pursuit of comfort, like eating macaroni and cheese in the middle of the winter. For a long time I read Pride and Prejudice every Christmas vacation. Other books I faithfully return to: The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy; In the Cage by Henry James; Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth; some of Dawn Powell’s books; and assorted mysteries including Westlake, John D. MacDonald, and pre-Hannibal Thomas Harris. Quite a conventional list of its kind, I imagine.
(Incidentally, Erin’s mention of B. Dalton’s, a name I haven’t heard in eons, really whips of memories of the bad old pre-revolutionary days [the revolution in question being, of course, the national expansion of Borders] when it was the Dalton’s at the mall or nothing. The next time someone gets snide about Borders in my earshot, I’m going to raise that unlovely specter of the Dalton’s at the mall.)