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The particular pleasures of rereading

queenAt the moment, I’m rereading three books. Two of these–The Queen of Attolia and The Goblin Emperor–I’ve already reread multiple times (QoA so much that I’m beginning to worry about the binding). The third–Tamar Adler’s lovely An Everlasting Meal–I’ve only previously read once. I’m reading all three slowly, as the mood strikes me, and something about this made me consider the joys of rereading.

Some people aren’t rereaders and others are. I always have been. I can remember spending long summers immersed in the familiar world of LM Montgomery, reading all over our backyard and getting popsicle juice on the books. In middle school, I read and reread and rerereread Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword. Later, I was basically always rereading something by Tolkien. These days, I have to be more deliberate about my rereading habits, and yet I do frequently pick up a book I’ve read before.

But I haven’t particularly articulated why I keep returning to certain books, why part of my personal definition of a good book is, “a book that holds up to rereading.”

In the first place, once you’re past the initial read through a book, you don’t have to deal with that pesky issue of plot anymore. For me, plot is usually distracting, either because it’s bad and I keep arguing with it, or because it’s good and therefore too gripping and tense. Once I know roughly what is going to happen in a story, I can focus more on what I really¬† love: characters and writing.

And in addition, my favorite authors usually build in layers of complexity. It takes time and revisiting to unravel them all. One of the things I love about rereading Megan Whalen Turner, for example, is the way I make new connections and find things I had previously overlooked. Even though I have parts of her books almost memorized, she still surprises me. For the kind of subtle, deep writers that I tend to love, rereading can practically be a necessity.

It’s also true that–especially in certain moods and at certain times of the year–I find great value in knowing what I’m getting myself into. It’s not that I only want light books, but that I want books that are a known quantity. And there are books that feel like old friends, which I slip into easily and fully no matter what else is going on. The Perilous Gard is a prime example, as is almost anything by Georgette Heyer.

But rereading isn’t only a particular form of nostalgia. It often asks me to revisit my past readings of a book. Does my old assessment of this character or that plot point hold up? Do I see things differently in my current time of life or frame of mind? It reminds me that reading and reacting to books is an active and ongoing process, that what I think about any given author is never fixed.

Ultimately, I find that rereading gives me a sense of depth and understanding which enriches my experience of the book. Whether I notice something I had always overlooked, or realize that I don’t hold to a previous reading, or simply deepen my understanding and love for the story, rereading gives me something special.