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Guilty Pleasures of Adulthood: The Joys of Re-Reading

OK, admit it. You probably didn’t think I was going to end that sentence with “re-reading.” Sorry to disappoint. But I was really...

OK, admit it. You probably didn’t think I was going to end that sentence with “re-reading.” Sorry to disappoint.

But I was really taken with an editorial in last Saturday’s New York Times by Verlyn Klinkenborg about the pleasures of re-reading. In it, the author confesses that as much as she admires people who are widely read, she herself is much more of a re-reader.

I’m the opposite. I almost never re-read books. In fact, I compulsively get rid of books once I’ve read them, either returning them to the library or giving them away. (The zeal with which I “throw things away”  is yet another variant on my own personal ziplock conflict with my husband, btw…)

Part of this is because I live in a closet. But mostly it’s because I always feel like there’s a better use of my time. There are so many classics out there that I’ve never read that if I’m going to re-read something, I feel that it ought to be “important” – Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, for example. (This is also, btw, why I can be such a buzz kill in book clubs.)

But lately, I’ve come to appreciate that one of the great pleasures of getting older is that it gives you the opportunity to re-read. You pick up something that resonated for you at one point in your life and you see what it means to you now. As Klinkenborg puts it so eloquently:

The real secret of re-reading is simply this: It is impossible. The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the reader always does. Pip is always there to be revisited, but you, the reader, are a little like the convict who surprises him in the graveyard — always a stranger.

A great example of this process for me – and which, interestingly, did not lie in the realm of the classics – was when I re-read Allison Pearson’s brilliant I Don’t Know How She Does It. I first read this funny and moving treatment of working-mom-hell when I was deeply ensconced in working-mom-hell and recognized myself in the stressed-out, over-performing, irreverent central character. (As did so many of my friends. My favorite anecdote from this book is when the main character wishes that she could create a special check-out line in grocery stores for particularly harried working mothers. I hear you, sister.)

The second time I read the book, however, I’d moved out of that phase of life into an entirely different one. I was trying to write a novel of my own and thought that it would be helpful if I read someone else who got the tone that I was shooting for right – i.e. a voice that was funny and insightful but also tinged with sadness and moments of darkness. And it worked. Because I already knew the plot line, I could read the book for the language…the tone…the rhythm of events. In short, I read it less as a mother and more as a writer. And it was a totally different experience.

I’m sure that there are loads of books out there that I could be re-reading if I would just let myself…stay tuned for tomorrow’s post.


Speaking of paranoia about not being sufficiently well-read, via the ever fabulous Very Short List I came across this link to a book aptly titled Beowolf on the Beach which gives plot summaries of all the classics. Crib notes for grown ups!

Book Babel: Half Read Tower of Shame by Pindec via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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  1. Matt Boylan June 2, 2009 at 8:45 pm #

    It has also been (quite seriously) suggested that super markets change to the form of single line before many tellers that banks have long used to reduce customer waiting times. However, don’t hold your breath!


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