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Why would you ever re-read a book?

It is childish, someone once told me, to return to the same thing again and again. Children will re-watch movies dozens of times. They will want the same book read to them every night. They will listen to the same song again and again, and so I always viewed it as a childish act.

Think of all the grandeur in the world — all the books and songs and films. There’s so much greatness that no one can possibly experience it all in their lifetime. It’s impossible to read them all, to hear them all, to see them all. And it is our duty to soak up as many as we can before leaving this great world.

Yet some people return to the same movie again and again — I’ve seen The Departed at least a dozen times — and read the same books again and again. Some have read the Harry Potter series, seemingly on repeat, since they first came out in 1998.

“I grew up with it,” one woman told me. “These books were my childhood. My dad would drive me to the bookstore for the midnight release. We’d wait anxiosly in line, and once in hand, I’d dive for the car and pull out the flashlight to read on the bumpy ride home. I couldn’t wait.”

Childhood, there it is again.

sunset over the end of a dockWith me it’s Gatsby. Everywhere I look that book comes back into my life. I read a fellow blogger who just doesn’t get it, yet when I wrote just there about childhood, I thought of Gatsby, standing at the dock and staring at that elusive green light, yearning to have something that will never be:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning– So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. -F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

There it is again — the past. Childhood, mispent youth, no matter how hard we paddle on against the current, it keeps pulling us back. Isn’t that what everyone is doing when rereading their favorites? Trying to recapture that elusive green light, that time that once was, the feeling they once had? Or am I just being nostalgic about Gatsby, not realizing he is the green light I keep going back towards every time I pick up that book and every time I read that quote?

The same can be said for movies. I will always remember Roger Ebert talking about how movies change through time. Art is what we make of it, and each decade in our lives it speaks a different message. Perhaps that is why we keep coming back to art — not to return to childhood, but to hold a mirror up to ourselves and see how we’ve changed:

Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw “La Dolce Vita” in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom “the sweet life” represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age.

When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him. And when I saw the movie right after Mastroianni died, I thought that Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal. –Roger Ebert

It’s as though each time we see a movie or read a book, it’s simply confirming the ideas we already feel. It almost seems like a cheat, an affront to the author. Shouldn’t we feel what the he or she intended? Every time I hear the live version of Thunder Road circa 1975 and those closing verses, I get goosebumps:

And in the lonely cool before dawn
You hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they’re gone
On the wind so Mary climb in
It’s town full of losers
And I’m pulling out of here to win

In college I imagined adventure. I thought of being stuck, of not experiencing the world. I thought of those old saps who would live and die in the same town, that “town full of losers.” And so I moved across the United States for a year, but when I came home, that song was different. It was now about the folly of the chase. Everywhere you go, there you are.

How will it sound when I’m 40? 60? 80? Or will the song itself become a memory of my emotions? Will it become a chronology of my life? I wonder what Springsteen felt when he wrote it. I wonder what he thinks now when he sings it.

Then I think of Patrick Rothfuss, and what he told me in 2007:

I know how much I hated [waiting for the next installment] growing up. You read the book, and you’re excited, and then four years go by. And you’re like is this person ever going to come back to these characters that I love? Where’s the next piece? –Patrick Rothfuss

I miss my adventures with Huck Finn, and I wonder what poor Lenny would be up to, if that simple man could had ever made it out of alive. Would he have gotten his rabbit farm, with the green grass stretching out in front of him and the sun beaming down and the cool, damp grass between his toes? I like to think so.

And so it is that she misses her adventures with Harry and Ron and Hermione. And the books are over. Where else can you turn?

So you go back.

11 Comments

  1. Going back is the only way to relive it.

  2. A great post. I read books over and over like Stephen king books. I got my first king novel when I was 14. I read the book and didn’t understand it. 4 years later I read it again and it turned put to be the treated King book ever (dark tower series) Also sometimes the story is so great that I just have to reread it 🙂

    • I’ve read The Stand several times and The Shining Twice. I’ve yet to read The Dark Tower Series. I tried to read IT in fourth grade. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. 🙂

      • Same 🙂 I finsihed the last book two years ago and it has a special place in my bookshelf eversince 😉 Actually the Stand and the Dark Tower Series are my favorite King books!

  3. When I read the title “Why would you ever re-read a book?” my immediate reaction was “For the same reason I keep having sex.”

    But I think it is a fallacy to assume that because you are reading the same book or seeing the same movie that you are having the same experience over and over. Take Catcher in the Rye. You read that as a teenager and it’s great. You read it again as a full-fledged grown-up and you wouldn’t wipe your ass with it.

    The only thing I’ve read more than Harry Potter is To Kill a Mockingbird, and every time I read any of them, I am always drawing something new out of them. The plot is the same, but there is always something I didn’t notice before, or a theme I didn’t pick up on before, because I am a different person than I was the last time I experienced it.

  4. This was beautiful.
    I go back for the comfort. Books, movies, even favorite TV shows. I know these characters/scenes/motivations. I bathe in the language, or the crafted plot, or the camera angle that tells everything. There’s Truth there, truth I can’t find in the real world or is so diluted as to be invisible.
    Again, beautiful, Jeff. Thank you.

    • Ah, yes! I completely forgot that aspect, but oh how important. The real world can be a mess, but those worlds we dive into have meaning and structure. Great point. Plus the comfort of being with your friends, reliving your favorite moments — that turn of phrase or clever directorial choice.

      Damn, there’s so many things I want to redo now. How will ever do something new!

  5. Oh, I love this post so much. I am not much of a nostalgic type of person nor do I reread too much, but I love the way you have thought through your post, and also the thoughtful comments on here 🙂

  6. I love the nostalgic feeling I get from re-reading an old favorite! Some of my books are like old friends that I love to visit. Huck Finn, Slsughterhouse Five, Earth Abides, Hitchhiker’s Guide . . . The good ones still surprise me with things I hadn’t noticed before, no matter how many times I’ve read them.

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