Monday, April 16, 2012

Re-reading and Why We Do It

My friend, Stephanie Patterson, recently forwarded an article to me on re-reading, and the books that are most commonly re-read by authors (according to a survey). Can you guess which book came out on top? The Great Gatsby. More authors re-read that book once a year, than any other. It is also one of my favorites.

This article set me thinking about the books I return to on a regular basis, and to ask myself —why? Here are a few of my favorites. Short stories by J. D. Salinger, Willa Cather, and Hemingway (his early “Nick” stories). All the Peter Wimsey novels, Raymond Chandler novels, Josephine Tey’s, Margery Allingham’s and Agatha Christie’s. Pride & Prejudice and Emma. All of Barbara Pym. Well…on and on they go.

Now to the question—why? What draws me back to these books over and over again, and not to others? In the case of the mysteries, when I know the outcome, it certainly isn’t the plot that pulls me back. No. I’ve decided, it’s the people. I love being with Peter and Harriet Vane, and listening to their clever dialogue. I like to laugh at Philip Marlowe’s nasty, cutting remarks, and smile at the more subtle play of wit between Elizabeth and Darcy, Emma and Mr. Knightly. The fact that I’ve heard it all before, only enhances my enjoyment. These characters are like family, or very close, old, friends. You don’t mind hearing their stories, anecdotes, and witticisms, repeated. On the contrary, you look forward to them. For some reason, being able to anticipate them, makes them all the more enjoyable.

But what about those novels that don’t supply much humor, such as Rebecca, a book I re-read periodically. Is it just because it’s such a magnificent yarn? Or is it the exquisite rendering of evil that the author creates that fascinates me over and over again?

I know I haven’t begun to explain the magic potion that draws me back to these books repeatedly. If I could explain it, then I might be able to write such books myself. A futile dream that I know I will never fulfill. I wish you would share some of those books you return to again and again, and tell me why. Maybe it will help me find the answer to this nagging question.

Robin Hathaway


  1. Your words about returning over and over to special characters resonates deeply with me, Robin, I used to reread all those people you described. But as the world has changed and my life has turned around about 180 degrees, I find myself closer to a new group of characters - still real people to ME, especially people I could meet for a drink or dinner or work with - working with people is my deepest contact with my friends - Nelson deMille's John Corey and his new wife, Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp and the brilliant CIA Director, several of David Hagberg's main characters, whom I follow through the years as they mature and change too. Thelma Straw

  2. Robin, You are so right! The books I reread most often are Jane Austen's. What I know I can never do is create what I call a Jane Austen scene. The character we have grown to like suddenly finds herself in position of enormous internal conflict. Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, at Colonel Brandon's request, must offer Edward, the man she loves with all her heart, the clergyman's "living" on Brandon's estate, which will give Edward the possibility of marrying Lucy Steele. Or Ann in Persuasion, who waits for word of whether Luisa has come out of her coma. Can she rejoice if Luisa lives to marry Captain Wentworth? But how could Ann, good and dutiful woman that she is, rejoice if Luisa dies and leaves Wentworth free to love Ann? These are just two examples. Austen does it again and again and makes us fall so in love with her characters that we cannot be away from them for long. And no matter how many times I read the books, I can never figure out exactly how she does it or ever find the least clue to how I might ever do it myself.