“Confession: I have read Pride and Prejudice about two hundred times. I get lost in the language, words like ‘thither’, ‘mischance’, ‘felicity’. I’m always in agony over whether Elizabeth and Mr Darcy are really going to get together.”
Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail
“It is a truth generally acknowledged that we are all longing to escape. I escape always to my favourite book, Pride and Prejudice. I’ve read it so many times now the words just say themselves in my head and it’s like a window opening. It’s like I’m actually there.”
Amanda Price in Lost in Austen
What is it about some books that makes us want to read them over and over again? And what is it about others that makes once enough?
Unlike Kathleen Kelly and Amanda Price, I only made it through Pride and Prejudice once and that was with the knowledge that the BBC adaptation was awaiting me as a reward when I finished it. The second time I tried, all I could think was that there was so much more blathering on than in the television miniseries. (Ironically, I have probably watched the BBC miniseries over twenty times.)
I’m actually not much of a rereader. I love the surprise of something new and when I reread a book I am constantly anticipating the events I know are coming. So imagine my astonishment when I realised that 2015 is turning out to be a year of rereading for me.
It started when I found a top ten books list I had constructed about fifteen years ago and decided to construct a current top ten books list to see how they compared. Once I had my top ten, I realised how few of my favourite books I had actually reviewed on Goodreads. Rated, yes, but reviewed? No.
I started by rereading The Great Flood Mystery by Jane Curry, which was my favourite chapter book as a child, a sort of easing in, if you will. It was just as good as I remembered, justifying the five star rating I had given it. Next was Tokyo (also known as The Devil of Nanking) by Mo Hayder. Another five star rating and review. Now I’m rereading Ninety East Ridge by Stephen Reilly and I’m also planning to reread Room by Emma Donoghue before the year is out. (Look out for all of these reviews on this blog.)
The last time I did any significant rereading I was still at university and I filled in the long summer gap between my second and third years by rereading Kay Scarpetta novels in order and back to back, starting with Postmortem.
I think there are three reasons for rereading books:
*We considered them fantastic last time we read them and we’re just confirming that opinion.
*They make us feel a certain way and we want to feel that way again.
*We’re looking for the small details and hidden meanings that we missed the first time around.
And then, of course, there’s the secret fourth reason:
*To write reviews for Goodreads on books rated but not yet reviewed
Okay, so maybe that’s just me.
So what kinds of books tend to be reread? Well, there’s Pride and Prejudice obviously. Sweeping aside the vast array of young adult books that are currently dominating bestseller lists simply because they are current, a quick online search came up with Anne of Green Gables. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Great Gatsby. The rest of Jane Austen’s novels. To Kill a Mockingbird. This is highly unscientific but the one thing all these books might have in common is that they are books we read during our formative years.
And what kinds of books tend not to be reread? Obviously the ones we didn’t enjoy in the first place. But it’s not as easy a question to answer as one might think. To reread or not to reread is a highly personal question. When I was googling books that people read over and over, someone said Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, which I didn’t enjoy at all and do not need or intend to read again.
Books with twist endings might ultimately shoot themselves in the foot in the rereading stakes. After all, once you know the twist, everything that comes before it is tainted by the knowledge. The purity with which the words were once read can never be recaptured.
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel is one of these books, I suspect. I was blown away by it but I don’t think I could read it again, because the ending is so powerful only because you don’t see it coming. Once you know the secret, it changes how you experience the first 95% of the book.
Then again, No Way Back by Matthew Klein has a fantastic twist ending but I so enjoyed the actual experience of reading of the whole book that I predict I may read it again at some point in the future.
Well, I think I’ve thoroughly failed to answer the question initially posed. What is it about some books that makes us want to read them over and over again? It is dependent on both the novel and the reader and an indefinable something that occurs when the two come together. In that regard, I suppose it’s a little like a love story. Nobody can predict when or why. We can only be thankful when it does.