In Defense of Not Rereading

by Maggie Libby Davis

In a class a few semesters ago, our professor asked the timeless and, in my mind, answerless question: “What is your favorite book?” I don’t want to name a favorite. My favorite book today might change tomorrow, and what if I haven’t read my favorite book yet? It’s too much pressure. My professor pushed for an answer, offering at she thought was a lifeline with, “What book do you reread, over and over, just because you must, because your mind demands to hear the story again?”

Reread? Was she crazy? Who had time to reread when there were so many still to read the first time? Don’t misunderstand: I’ve read books multiple times. Dr. Seuss books, Judy Blume books, Lucy Maud Montgomery books. But in my adult reading career? No.

Ultimately I answered because I had to with All Quiet on the Western Front. And, while at the time, it was one of my favorites, I felt like a fraud and a disloyal friend to all the books I had and hadn’t yet read.

That said, the seed was planted. I contemplated books I might read again, just to re-live those moments. I started with Cat’s Cradle. To my professor’s credit, I enjoyed it the second time as much as the first.

I decided to try All Quiet on the Western Front, a book I’d read in high school. The story was as compelling as the first time, but the magic, the transformation I felt in the first read, was missing in the second read.

I tried again with Henderson the Rain King, a book I’d read in college, a book that delighted me, engaged me, made me read Herzog and Humbolt’s Gift. I hadn’t read any Bellow since graduating twenty years ago, so here was my chance. I picked up Henderson ready to be whisked off to Africa with him, but I couldn’t even get to the point in the story where he actually goes to Africa before putting the book down in frustration.  How could this happen?

I blame it on two things. First is timing. With All Quiet, I was a child, inexperienced, almost like Paul Bäumer, and reading his story exposed me to a view I hadn’t seen in my military family life. As an adult, All Quiet could no longer conjure that flash of understanding while marching so beautifully to a destination once unknown.

The second reason a rereading can fail is our tendency to romanticize the past. In college, I loved the eloquent ramblings of Henderson. I remembered this as a joyful manner of distraction, a playful darting about the story. When I tried to reread it, I kept thinking, “Enough already with this overindulgent hot air.” And that’s a shame (and apologies to Bellow fans). The pleasure I derived the first time was not only unfulfilled in the second attempt, it was also tarnished.

I understand that multiple readings can bring to light subtle details previously missed or bring depth to the plot or allow for a deeper understanding of behavior or symbols. I know this, which is why I reread stories in workshop multiple times. Rereading may be the way to mine the beauty of a story, but then again it may not. Only the individual can decide if the risk of losing the magic is worth it when there are so many wonderful books to be read for the first time. Tread cautiously, dear reader.

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