Real Reading is Rereading

I’ve never had much time for rereading books. With hundreds of books on my reading list—a list that grew every week—to take the time and reread a particular book just wasn’t going to happen. Plus, if I already knew the story of a novel why should I read it again? There would be no surprise, no tension. But as I reread Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, I discovered what Nabokov had told me all along: “There is no such thing as reading. Only rereading.”

In my first reading of Gilead, I found a story of a dying father passing a lifetime of wisdom to his son via letters. It was tragic, truly tragic. The immanency of death permeated every letter and left me sad and heartbroken. I don’t think I have ever been more moved by the first paragraph of a novel.

As I read Gilead for the second time I discovered a completely different story, a different novel, even. One about a dying man holding onto the last bit of sin he has left: a grudge he harbors against his best friend’s son. In the story, the son had run away from his father, squandered all his savings, and finally crawled back to his father with nothing. It was a retelling of the prodigal son in Luke 15. I completely missed this the first time.

You see, the first time I read this book I was so taken by the form of the story—that he was writing letters to his son before he died—that I couldn’t see the story. An easy mistake when the form of the story is as beautifully told as is in Gilead. It’s so beautiful, in fact, that it became a distraction. It’s like looking at a beautiful Van Gogh piece and being so awed by the impressionism and the brush strokes that you miss the actual painting. Yet this isn’t a bad thing. It just requires a second look, a second read.

This is, in part, what makes Robinson so brilliant: that I read this more than once and found two different stories, both with beauty and steeped in truth. Every good novel, no matter how many times you read it, can surprise you. Every good novel has new truth on every page. This is the reason that it’s a good idea to reread books. The more you read, the more you’ll be convinced that real reading is rereading.

The same idea is true in our human relationships. If we like a person we don’t just hang out with them one time, we spend more time with them so we can get to know them better and grow in intimacy. This usually happens whether you like it to or not. Time creates intimacy, intentionality or not. Even if you don’t like a person right away, giving them a second chance and getting to know them better will undoubtedly open your eyes to things you didn’t see before.

When we dismiss people after a first meeting, we may be missing out on a truly great person (c.f. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy). It’s the whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” thing. Yet this is more of a “don’t judge a book by its first read” thing. Read it again. What’s true of books is true of people. It’s at the second reading (or meeting) that you’ll learn more about the characters, their motivations, aspirations, and loves.

The reason that people my age keep coming back to Harry Potter is because the characters have become more than characters, they’ve become friends. One of my friends said she couldn’t even read the last chapter because she was so sad it was ending. She would read a page, then take an hour break, then come back and read another page, all because her friendship with the characters was coming to an end. When a book accomplished this, it’s a great book. The reviews mean nothing if the characters become as real to you as the friend you sit by at dinner.

Another example of a book that did this for me was the Poisonwood Bible. I loved the characters in that novel so much that as soon as I finished the novel (and then cried a bit that it was done) I flipped back to the first chapter and reread it. The characters were my friends. I had to get to know them better.

Thankfully, my angst about not reading all the books the world has to offer has vanished. Not even Harold Bloom—who can read 1000 pages an hour (which means he can read War and Peace on his lunch break)—can read all the books in the world. It’s not worth speed-reading literature. We should enjoy our time with a good book. It’s not about how many novels you can read in your lifetime. People that obsess over quantity usually obsess over it simply so they boast about how much they read. Real reading is about finding a good book, finding good characters, and getting to know them. Real reading is a budding relationship. Real reading is rereading.


Photo by (flickr CC):Georgie Pauwels