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RereadingLast night, over dinner, we discussed reading and re-reading. At one point I said that re-reading is the proof of how Knowing What Comes Next is not the key to the pleasure of reading. It sounded nice, and it worked well in the discussion, but the matter is less straightforward, I think – so here are a few thoughts.

First of all, we don’t all re-read. My father was one compulsive re-reader, and the books that were his show it with much wear and broken spines. My friend Clementina, on the other hand, never re-read a book in her life, because “once read, it’s read. What’s worth remembering I’ll remember, what I won’t remember isn’t worth it.” And they say that in his (admittedly brief) life, Vendean general Henri de la Rochejaquelein only read again and again the memoirs of I don’t remember what 17th century strategist. Perhaps he didn’t know Thomas Aquinas, who found the Man of One Book so unnerving…

Then, not all books are of the re-reading sort. This, again, varies hugely from person to person, but some books become members of the family, to which one returns again and again for comfort or guidance. Of the beauty of some other books, one never tires – each re-reading like that visit at the National Gallery whenever one is in London. Other books are tied to a moment, a memory, an atmosphere – and that’s what one seeks re-reading. Then there are those plots, or characters so perfect, one goes back to study how on earth the writer did it, and there are seasonal books that grow into yearly rituals, and favourite chapters, scenes and descriptions, and those books one read too early to truly appreciate them…

On the other hand, there are all the ugly, annoying, disappointing books, the ones we had to read or study, the ones that gave us nightmares, the ones too intense for comfort, the ones that came to highly recommended – or just the forgettable ones. The ones we’ll never want to re-read. ReRead1

Whatever the reason, though, my theory is that reading and re-reading are to hugely different activities. A first reading is an exploration, a matter of thrills and surprises – a combination of the wish to know What Comes Next and the enjoyment of the way there. It’s a matter of discoveries, very much like meeting a person or visiting a place for the first time. It’s the kind of experience that, at its best, keeps on up at all hours of the night. It’s like a first love – and, once gone, it’s gone.

Re-reading, now… Ah, re-reading is another kettle of fish. One re-reads more analytically. One goes deeper. One savours, sifts, observes, peels layers and enjoys nuances and complexities. One knows the general lay of the land, and revisits leisurely, enjoying the familiarity and digging for new beauties. Much like renewing an acquaintance, or returning to a place. It has joys of its own – its own set of pleasures.

The snag is, of course, that reading-time is finite, and one either reads or re-reads… Which is, in the end, why I don’t re-read as much as I’d like. Still, my Reading Week is approaching (perhaps), and I have half a mind to make it a Re-Reading Week instead. Just this year…

We’ll see. But what about you, O Readers? Are you Re-Readers?