Monday, February 28, 2011

Why Do We Re-read?

Recently I was made acutely aware that some of my books must go. I was looking around my apartment for a space to stash my latest acquisitions and found, to my horror, there were none. The only space left was the bathtub and I’m not going down that road. I have friends who have resorted to this, but not me. I’m too lazy. I can’t imagine having to remove a bunch of books before every shower. So out they go.

But which ones? How do I choose? I decided my criteria should be one, simple question: “Will I read this book again?” If the answer is, “No.” out it goes.

This led me to a more philosophical question. What makes a book re-readable? Why do I read some books over and over, and never open others again, once I’ve closed their cover? I’m not talking about bad books here. Or boring books. I’m talking about tried and true classics. What is the magical quality that drives me back to Austen, Sayers, Tey, Chandler, Poe, Stevenson, Cather, Salinger and Fitzgerald? But never to Hardy, Eliot, Tolstoy, Scott, Dostoevski, and various contemporary authors who will remain nameless? Is it a simple matter of taste?

I have pondered this question often because I would really like people to reread my books. My greatest desire is to have people treat my books like old friends and revisit them — with pleasure. But how do I write such books?

Does anyone out there know the secret of Austen, Chandler or Sayers? Are their characters more human? Do you like to hang out with them more? That can’t be it. I wouldn’t want to hang out with Daisy and Tom, or most of Philip Marlow’s cronies. Is it the satisfaction that justice is done? Not really. Certainly not in The Great Gatsby or “The Black Cat.” Is it the writing itself — the flow, the imagery, the wit — or a combination of these? I don’t think so. I’ve read plenty of beautifully written books — only once.

The first book I reread was Little Women, the second — Pride and Prejudice, and the third — Gaudy Night. After that I lost count. It didn’t matter that I knew Jo wouldn’t marry Laurie, or that Elizabeth would marry Darcy, or who wrote the obscene notes on Oxford’s hallowed walls. I relished these stories just as much, maybe even more, when I knew the outcome.


If any of you know the answer, please let me know.

— Robin Hathaway


  1. That is such a good question. I have no idea what the answer might be, but I too have favorites that I go back to again and again. The first book I can remember rereading (and I can't count how many times) was Heidi. I can remember starting the book and telling myself I would just skip the part where she was so unhappy in the city, but I never could. I had to read every word.

  2. For me it's The Lord of The Rings. Characters I like and admire, moving through a strange landscape that has perfect integrity--of course it exists somewhere. Why wouldn't it exist?--struggling with terrible forces and overcoming them. All in exquisite English. Or Elvish. Whatever. I can take that journey again and again.

  3. Oh, Robin, I am so with you on this. Austen is THE ONE for my rereading habits. I read one of hers every few months, and read all of them every couple of years. There are others I reread, but no others even come close. Your question about why intrigues me. I know that children want to have the same stories read to them over and over again. I understand that this is because they have so little experience of the world that they get something new out of the book that they have not realized before. As I think about it, that's why I do it. The books I delight in are so rich, the characters so complex and delightful, the stories so deeply satisfying, the language so witty and stylish that every time I read them I get something new out of them. In short, they are so delicious that I find them irresistible. Just because I have tasted osso buco and chocolate mousse doesn't mean I wouldn't want to feast on them again. I get a yen for them from time to time and nothing will do but that I have to have them again and soon. 'Persuasion!'. I think need a taste of it very soon.