Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Importance of Re-Reading

"We need to learn not simply to read books but to allow ourselves to be read by them"
-Mark Edmundson
Why Read?

I find that I like to revisit the past and I really have a thing for nostalgia (if you’re an ADPi, think “Remember Whens”). This extends to a lot of aspects of my life, but especially when it comes to books. I put a lot of stock in re-reading and there are quite a few books that show up on my lists more than once. There are probably people out there who don’t understand why anyone would want to read something in which they already know the plot and ending, but those people don’t understand the point of reading. Reading and learning are the things that help us grow and better understand ourselves as individuals and in relation to the wider world. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: when we read, there is something, however small, that changes the person we were before the reading. Thus, it is in re-reading that we can re-discover that person—the core of ourselves—and better understand who we were, who we are, and who we want to become. Think about the first time you ever read The Catcher in the Rye and how you felt about Holden’s “phonies” and that wonderful image that inspired Salinger’s title. Or the light across the lake in The Great Gatsby. Or Kurtz’s “The horror! The horror!” in Heart of Darkness. When you read these, you were probably 16 (if you’ve read them at all). Think about how differently you looked at the world when you were a teenager—and that makes all the difference in re-reading.

In just this past week, I have been inundated with a strong sense of the nostalgia that sometimes takes a stranglehold on my life. Due to my inability to make it to the library for new books, I started re-reading the Harry Potter series (and having just finished Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, am feeling re-devastated due to the events in the last half of the book) and I went to Richmond, VA to see Wicked for the 10th time (and proud of it!) so I thought it might be fun to write about books that I’ve enjoyed re-reading, books I want to re-read, and recommend books that you may have not read since high school, but might want to pick up again. So here goes in no order:

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: Esther Greenwood is not your average teenager in Plath’s only novel. Rather, she sees through the materialism that grabs her fellow teenage girls, and wants more, but unfortunately the world doesn’t want to give her more. The devastation of this causes her to attempt suicide (like Plath) which lands her in a mental institution. A beautiful but heartbreaking story of growing up and finding yourself, it is a wonderful re-read, and a necessary read if you haven’t read it before! I read this when I was 15, thinking I was cool, but when I re-read it when I was 21, I found just how little I knew when I was 15.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner: I love Faulkner. I don’t know why, but I just get him. This is a hard one to get through because it’s not linear and part of it is told by a boy who is mentally handicapped, but it is a work of genius. The plot (when you can find one) follows the Compson family—boys obsessed with their sister Caddy (in different ways), the upholding of family honor, and what family means. I would recommend reading this with someone else so that you can discuss it--I read it with a class in college, and learned so much from the discussions!
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum—Well, if you know me at all, you know my love for Oz. When I was in 8th grade, I discovered the wonderful world that Baum created, and was delighted to find that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was only the first of 13 Oz books originally penned by Baum (there are more, but they are done by different authors). My love affair with Oz began with the movie (as I feel is how most people are aware of the book now) and was only broadened by the books which are written for children, but are smart and stimulating enough for adults. I re-read this during my junior year of college when I got back from studying abroad, and it helped get me through the semester with its magic and my memories of days spent in Oz.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: I thought I would hate this book. All I knew about it was that it was about a pedophile who kidnaps a young girl and takes her as his lover. Sounds creepy, right? Okay.. yes… some of the descriptions made me want to look away, but Lolita is about more than Humbert Humbert’s love for “nymphets,” it is a story of America, obsession, and words. The language is beautiful (I was often compelled to read out loud) and it is amazing how you view Humbert and Lolita in the beginning and how it may (or may not) change in the end. A true American novel, it is one that you should definitely read at some point.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac: I feel like I’ve mentioned Kerouac in every blog entry I’ve had, but that’s only because he is amazing. Originally written on a long scroll in a typewriter, Kerouac’s most famous novel is one that is often seen as rebellious and “hippie,” but reading between the lines shows a softer side to Kerouac’s madness. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty take five road trips across the country, looking for something they can’t quite put a name to. Written in a kind of laid-back way, many think that Kerouac was nothing but a drug addict or alcoholic, but this work captures the American spirit of the 1950s and 1960s. I love re-reading this, because I find something new every time, and this is one of those books that makes me look at the world in a different way and it always inspires me to take a road trip.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien: I had to read this in high school, but seeing as many of you reading this are probably older than I am, I’m sure you didn’t read it in high school or college. O’Brien’s story of Vietnam is a truly amazing act of storytelling. Told through stories of himself and the men in his platoon in Vietnam, you get a sense of war, love, death, greed, and life in this beautifully written book. His characters are so human and so real that it truly makes me cry every time I pick it up. O’Brien really was in Vietnam, and while this isn’t a memoir, it certainly feels that way. O’Brien came to speak at Wittenberg my freshman year (and autographed my book!) and then I saw him again at the National Book Festival in September, and he is a wonderful speaker and amazing writer.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy: I have only read this once, but it is one I'm looking at re-reading soon. The Road is the story of a man and his son and their survival after the apocalypse and their encounters with the others who have survived. I loved this book because of the relationship of the father and son and their desperate will to survive. This will forces them to go south for the winter and the book chronicles their journey.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens: I love Charles Dickens. Maybe it’s because I associate it with my time in England, because the professor who I read him with was brilliant, or because he is a straight-up genius, but nonetheless, I love him, and Oliver Twist is my favorite of his. I have a thing for books about kids who are different, and Oliver certainly fits the bill. The rousing tale of life in 19th century England amongst the lowest people in society was one that Dickens wrote in attempts to raise awareness of the mistreatment of orphans.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: When I first read this, I didn’t really get it. That may have been because I considered it a “boy” book, with its adventures and male protagonist, but upon re-reading, I found out how much I loved Huck Finn and his attitude. Personally, Huck Finn taught me to question society and to look for adventure in life and his brave pre-road road trip helped to inspire such authors as Jack Kerouac.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Yes. We have all read this. But if the only time you read it was in high school, please pick it up again. We all know what it’s about, and it’s no wonder that everyone has read it because it is an honest look at American racism, southern life, growing up, and understanding responsibility.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey: Nurse Ratched?! Talk about one of the most awesome characters in American fiction! Kesey’s novel about a ward in a mental institution in the 1960s is a direct protest against authority, American repression, and consumerism, I always find new ways of loving the characters and understanding them. If all you’ve seen is the movie, read the book. Kesey himself HATES the movie.

Obviously, it is never a good idea to constantly re-read, because then we would have nothing new, but there are certain books I try to read every three years or so. Are there books that you re-read again and again? Do you agree with me about re-reading? Have you found that your opinion of a book has completely changed in re-reading? Share with me... I'd love to hear about it!

After I finish Harry Potter, I've got Little Bee and Alice Have I Been on the nightstand, and I'm very excited about it! I've also been thinking of what I want to tackle this summer, and I think Leaves of Grass in its entirety might be my project! :)

Keep (re)reading,


  1. Hah! funny you should mention Little Bee -- I was goign to suggest that one to you! One of our patrons mentioned the title last week and i jsut saw it on our "return" cart -- "great minds . . . ."

  2. Lolita was a great read, Deleuzian through and through ( Deleuze was a French philosopher I'm obsessed with). American in the journey aspect of the story, always looking at the horizon, but more than that: beyond a horizon, a goal (to settle down, lead a normal life). Like Melville does with Captain Ahab, Nabakov makes normal life impossible for Humbert. A deterritorialized line of flight, ridden with potential black holes and abysses ( Ahab's monomania, Humbert's fancies) that foreshadow almost from the start the tragic endings. Still, the potential of this process of deterritorialization can work, and certain pieces of literature give a kind of genealogy of what not to do, what to avoid, to have a smooth, nomaic adventure in life!