To re-read, or not to re-read

Okay, I know that blogs are in some ways one sided in an “I talk, you listen” kind of way, but today I’d really like you to make use of the “comment” box at the bottom of the page so we can get a good ol’ conversation going!

Oh Colin, how I love thee!

The topic? Re-reading. As a bibliophile, it’s a process fraught with both guilt and pleasure: is there anything more satisfying than experiencing Elizabeth Bennet fall in love with Mr. Darcy, even if it is for the 7th or 8th time? But then, I look at my beautiful bookshelves and it fills me with guilt: should I really be re-reading this book when there are so many others, both classic literary and commercial schmaltz,  that I’ve yet to get to.

I decided to write about this issue after sitting in on our 11th research forum of the year. Presented by Romantic Scholar-extraordinaire Deidre Lynch, this was one of the few that I was on the edge of my seat about, even though the topic she intended to cover was a book I hadn’t read (yet another that tugs my nerves with shame): Tristram Shandy.  Considering the notion of re-reading, though, she sent the wheels of my mind spiraling faster than my pen could follow.

In what way is novel reading exclusively about novelty, and in what way is that a misnomer? Should we be following the “Modernist protocol” (Lynch’s words) of “making it new,” or do we engage in the Renaissance Humanist task of perpetual re-reading? And is this endless chewing of the literary cud a savouring of what’s old, or do we continuously engage in order to seek out the new, find finding new perspectives offered by the same text, simply peeling off more layers of the Shrekian onion?

I’m so happy that Professor Lynch wanted to discuss re-reading because I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. With the sun setting later than 6 pm (!!!), I realized that my yearly perusal of the works of Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Keruoac would be soon upon me. I don’t know what it is about the summer, but it just makes me yearn for the freedom of the open road: fast cars and mescaline, hitching rides on trains and sleeping under the stars. When August comes around, I remind myself that it’s time to get serious and I perpetually return to the more esoteric environs of Virginia Woolf’s perspective… and Shakespeare. But Shakespearean re-reading gets a post specifically devoted to itself, which you can read @ Why I Love Shakespeare. Nonetheless, there seem to be these “recursive loops” in my reading habits, and of these loops I’m not ashamed. They provide me with good balance: after a year of extensive reading, it’s nice to get back to an old faithful of a dog-eared, much-loved text and read it intensively.

But seriously, let’s keep going with re-reads. It doesn’t even have to mean that you go back to a book, cover-to-cover. In fact, I refused to acquire a bookshelf with glass doors because, however transparent, doors are still doors, bringing me one step further away from the furious grasping for short passages that are just so relevant for this occasion. I lend out books to friends all the time because I want them to experience these texts that I find indispensable, but as the ironic result, I feel like I need them back within a reasonable time, as my arsenal of texts seems a bit lighter without the amazing books which deserved such glowing recommendation.

So let’s ask ourselves why we re-read, is it a matter of enjoying the old, discovering the new, or my hopeless pedantry of common-place booking, the accumulation of quotations for the right place and the right time? Do we re-read in order to take part in the “social matrix that factors in one-upmanship”? Professor Lynch had a good point in this and noted her own interest in this area, having read Wuthering Heights 16 times before she turned 16, an attempt to “boast her fidelity to Emily Bronte.” A Queen’s professor of mine watches the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice with his wife each year, not as an act of showing how spectacularly literate they are, but as an annual re-visitation of their own prejudices, arguing whether Darcy is a redeemable character. They have the same argument every year, he says, much to the chagrin of their children. Sounds like a fun Christmas to me!

So you tell me: what are your idiosyncratic reading habits? Do you re-read? What do you re-read, and why?



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Filed under Miscellaneous Bibliophilia

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