Paging through the same book more than once is normal — especially if it’s a dictionary, a reference handbook, a cookbook or a book of poetry. Who can always recall how to spell “tchotchke” . . . or correct verb usage with collective nouns . . . or a recipe that one only makes occasionally. . . or one’s favorite poems? But a novel? As it is, I have a tower-like stack of unread novels on my nightstand, so why would I ever re-read one?
When I was teaching English and journalism, reading To Kill a Mockingbird, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men — or other books on the semester’s syllabus — one time was sufficient. After all, I had outlines and quizzes from previous years that I could adapt to my current classes. But during discussions, a student would bring up a point that prompted me to re-read a chapter or two. Or a book club member would take a different stance on a character, and I’d go home and re-read a few passages. But re-read an entire novel all on my own for no reason? Well, I have.
Over the years, I’ve re-read a few novels that I’ve enjoyed — simply for pleasure. And what’s more, I often learned something new the second time around. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, with its family dynamics and social issues, was almost too much to digest in one reading. Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities had such memorable characters whose nuances and back stories grew clearer the second time around. The subtle wordplay — ‘trippingly on the tongue’ — seemed more direct when I re-read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
Different ages and stages of our lives can also prompt us to re-read a novel and have an epiphany. When I was eleven, I read The Sun Also Rises because my brother, who was ten years older, had left it behind. Thankfully, I re-read it as an adult. And after re-reading Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek, J.W.Lambert’s Sunday Times review became even more poignant: “The sense of life as a feast to be savoured is strong in this enjoyable book, so full of pleasure in rain and sunshine, dawn and dusk, food and drink.”
Life truly is a feast. Reading — and re-reading — can be one, too.