Read It Again!

Thus goes up the cry from many a small child, with their insatiable desire for the same bedtime story to be told, over and over (and over) again.

Felix Schlesinger Die Gute-Nacht-Geschichte

But it’s not just little kiddies who do it. Scratch a reader and you will find a re-reader – but what is it we’re re-reading? And why?

The winner of the gold medal, blue ribbon and all-around first prize for re-reading (re-readiness?) is the Scriptures; unsurprising given the emphasis so many traditions put on reading, re-reading, memorizing and internalizing the words of God. As Jesus said, these are “foundational words, words to build a life on.” But, leaving the Scriptures aside, as the best-seller lists do (since the same book invariably tops the list), what are the most popular re-reads?

The comments on this post reminded me of the widespread passion for re-reading The Lord of the Rings – and not just re-reading it, but re-reading it again every year. That’s dedication, especially if you aren’t a fast reader.

Some people re-read other classic novels such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, although I have yet to hear of anyone who repeatedly reads War and Peace – apart from Countess Tolstoy, who apparently recopied and edited it seven times. That’s going above and beyond the call of duty, it seems to me. Bearing thirteen children is one thing; reading War and Peace seven times is quite another.

woman writing at desk

Many people obsessively re-read C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia as children, and some continue the habit. I myself, as a child, re-read pretty much everything I could get my hands on, as I was a voracious reader with limited (re)sources. I even read our children’s encyclopaedia by the volume (Vol. 1, Article 1: Abbey, which may be connected to my subsequent interest in all things monastic).

More recently, I have noticed a pattern to my re-reading. When I am tired and want to relax, I read either an old favourite – Agatha Christie, Patricia Wentworth, Ngaio Marsh, Ellis Peters – or a book by an author with whom I am sufficiently familiar to be sure I will enjoy the book. And yes, this means that when I want to relax I almost without exception curl up with a mystery (although I did curl up with The Curse of Chalion the other day).

When I am not in need of book-induced relaxation – when I have more mental energy – I tend more toward the reading of non-fiction. Books about writing, books about whatever I have an interest in at the moment, books which happened to show up in an old box from someone’s grandmother. Reading entirely unfamiliar fiction doesn’t happen as often, unless the book is very compelling when I glance into it, because it doesn’t fit into either of my two settings: Relax or Absorb Information.

Simon Glücklich Hausaufgabe

But once I’ve read a non-fiction book, I seldom feel the inclination to re-read it, and I think this reveals something about why people re-read – or at least why I re-read. I re-read books because there is something in them which I cannot fully obtain from one reading. If it’s non-fiction, it’s because I didn’t absorb enough of the information it contained the first time round.

With fiction, that doesn’t apply. I mean, look at the enormous popularity of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels. Read one, you’ve got a pretty good idea of them all, but that doesn’t stop people reading the rest and then re-reading them. Because the essence of the book isn’t in the facts of it, it’s in something altogether more evanescent. The style of the book, or perhaps its soul. You can’t break that down to its component parts to analyze why it works. The letter kills, but the spirit gives life, you could say.

Or, to steal a structure from Maya Angelou, people will forget what the book said, they’ll forget what the characters did, but they will never forget how the book made them feel. And that, I am convinced, is the secret of all re-reading. Reading the book produced in us a feeling – and with great books it’s a feeling no other book creates – and re-reading the book is the only way to feel that again. This is how reading prescriptions work; and also why we have fan-fiction.

What do you think? What books do you re-read, and why?

The Awkward Conversations of Great Literature

Warning: potential spoilers lie ahead!

We can probably all remember Awkward Conversations we’ve been part of, but what about the ones we weren’t even there for? Conversations that technically never even happened, because they are fictional, but can make us squirm with sympathetic embarrassment nonetheless.

Mr Collins’ proposal to Miss Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, for example. We, like Miss Elizabeth, want to get the unpleasant necessity over with as quickly as possible, but he drones on and on, pontificating about his two favourite subjects, viz. Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mr Collins.


A word of advice to any young lady readers: if you are proposed to by a man who mentions another woman more often during his proposal than he mentions you, refuse him. We know he doesn’t stand a chance with Lizzy, but he’s so certain of his own desirability he doesn’t even need her answer to start congratulating himself.
Full credit to David Bamber for truly conveying the depths of awfulness in this Pilbeam among parsons.

Agatha Christie’s Lady Bundle Brent, on receiving a similar proposal in The Seven Dials Mystery, opts to leg it out the window herself, not being burdened with a mother who will insist on her seeing it through. If anyone knows of a book in which the pompous proposer is defenestrated, please do let me know.

I’m currently half-way through Anna Karenina – for the first time – and I have already grimaced through some very awkward conversations. This one’s a prize-winner, though: Oblonsky comes to ask his brother-in-law (in town on business) to dinner.

Piotr Petrovich Karataev by I Turgenev Illustration by P Sokolov
It goes something like this:

Oblonsky: Come to dinner!
Karenin: I can’t.
Oblonsky: Why not?
Karenin: Because I am about to sever the ties between us by divorcing your sister, my wife.
Oblonsky: Oh! Well, come to dinner anyway…

What are your favourite Awkward Conversations? Tell all! Unless they’re in the second half of Anna Karenina, in which case please wait a few weeks before commenting…
Awkward silences also welcomed, although please include the context as well as the silence 🙂