The joy and rewards of re-reading novels

middlemarchRe-reading novels is an idea that seems to divide people.  Some people think that life’s too short; for the rest of us, re-reading is one of the most joyous things about being a novel-reader at all.  I often hear people say that life is too short to re-read things, or simply that they don’t see the point; but we often watch films several times, listen to songs and pieces of music lots and lots of times, look at paintings time and again.  Why are books different?  Some novels are certainly written simply to be read and passed on – entertainment, or just a good read, nothing more substantial.  I’m not criticising that, I read a lot of such novels and enjoy them immensely.  Sometimes we re-read books because we want to enjoy the experience all over again, or because they make us feel better in a dark world.  And really good, literary novels don’t give up their treasures all at once.  Some are dense and so full of things that you simply can’t take them all in at one reading.  Some use language in such a way that the full beauty and impact can only be appreciated from reading the book several times.  Some embed themselves in our lives, consciously and unconsciously.  A guest on the Radio 4 programme A Good Read talked of how she started reading T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets in her teens, and has been re-reading and re-reading them ever since.  She still doesn’t understand everything in them, but she has absorbed the language, the ideas, the images and every so often she sees something or something happens, and a line comes into her mind.  She then feels closer to understanding the poem(s), and the intertwining of life and poetry is enriching.

I have just read a short article on re-reading that irritated me slightly at first – I didn’t read Great Expectations just for the plot the first time I read it, I have never been bored by Ethan Frome, and in fact it was my second reading of Wuthering Heights that made me want to throw it out of the window, I loved it the first time.  The article that mentions these is by Joan Wickersham in the Boston Globe

My two re-readings of Wuthering Heights were twenty years apart.  At the age of 18-20 (can’t quite remember) I absolutely loved it; at the age of about 40 I thought it was ridiculous.  This says more about me than about the book, and this is the point at which the article became much more interesting.  My favourite of all novels is George Eliot’s Middlemarch (I am very proud of the fact that Warwickshire is the birthplace of England’s – and I mean England not Britain! – two greatest writers, Shakespeare and Eliot).  This is what Joan Wickersham in the Boston Globe article says about the experience of reading and re-reading it:

The first time you read “Middlemarch,” most likely in college, you think it’s a book about other people. You would never steer your life in the wrong direction, like George Eliot’s sympathetic but misguided characters: Dorothea, who marries a man she thinks is a genius only to learn he’s a selfish, suspicious, shriveled-up pedant; Lydgate, the idealistic young doctor who falls for a narcissistic airhead; Fred, who keeps throwing money around even though the girl he desperately loves will marry him only if he stops throwing money around. They all start out with dreams and ambitions; life disappoints them and they disappoint themselves. Poor fools, you think.

When you read the book again — say in your 30s — you have a somewhat sickening fear that it’s a book about you. You haven’t made the same mistakes as George Eliot’s characters, but you’ve made different mistakes. You’ve had your own disappointments. Career plans that didn’t work out. Romantic missteps. Secrets you’ve kept, with disastrous results; secrets blurted out, equally disastrous. You’re still here, but you’re humbler, less lustrous. In short, you’ve lived.

And the more you go on living, the more prepared you will be to re-read “Middlemarch” yet again. This time you will realize that it isn’t a book about other people and it isn’t a book about you. It’s about all of us. In fact, it’s the broadest, most dimensional, most dispassionate, and most loving human panorama ever written. I reread it about a year ago, with a 77-year-old friend who was also re-reading. Almost every morning we would call each other to gossip about the inhabitants of Middlemarch, what they were up to and why. George Eliot’s town had become our town.

I love that – it’s close to my own experience, but is I think the point of reading any great novel.  Many of the novels that have survived from previous centuries have done so because they have this same quality.  They are not just about themselves, they are not just about us (though they are about both those things), they are about life.

So I try to encourage people to re-read.  Our relationship with a book changes as we change.  We don’t see ourselves changing, but re-reading Wuthering Heights after a 20-year gap showed me that I had changed, and showed me how.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever read Wuthering Heights again, but I really should – maybe when I’m 60, see what I make of it then.  I will definitely read Middlemarch again, several times – it really is the best novel.

As Joan Wickersham says at the end of that article:

Re-reading never gets old. The books change because we change. The great books get greater as we understand them better: reading them over and over, and knowing that we will never be finished.

My little shop will certainly encourage re-reading, and may provide on its shelves books you had forgotten you had read, as well as books you didn’t know you wanted to read.  I can’t wait!

[PS – Middlemarch was, of course, also adapted marvellously for television by Andrew Davies, longtime Kenilworth resident – definitely worth getting hold of on DVD!]