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 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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