Sometimes a gift comes to you – unbidden – from God, the universe, or your local bookstore. A few months ago, I was chatting with Peter Taylor, a high school senior, at Parnassus. He was behind the counter, working part-time (he’s Passionate about books). He was leaving for a year in Bolivia soon, he told me, and offered to send a guest post from there. Here is today’s lovely post on Why We Read (and Re-Read)…
“I don’t think I’ve ever re-read a book,” my grandmother once told me. I was sitting at her kitchen table, concentrating on a Harry Potter book. I like to remember it being the second one, The Chamber of Secrets, because even today the binding of the hardback fails to retain the same structure as its counterparts on the shelf. Groups of pages, still bound together, loosely fit with the rest only to fall out when the book is opened, and I can almost touch the front and back covers to each other.
As a bright-eyed boy devouring Harry Potter as fast as he could, I couldn’t begin to fathom my grandmother’s claim. She had never re-read a book? She must not have ever found a book as good as any one about teenage wizards.
My third grade teacher went on to back me up when my one of classmates questioned my re-reading of Harry Potter in the weeks leading up to the release of The Deathly Hallows. “I love re-reading books,” Mrs. Baum said. “Everytime you go back, you find something new.” With her offhand words, Mrs. Baum confirmed my suspicion: you didn’t have to get everything out of a book when you first read it. It was okay not to remember the name of every character or pick up on every detail. If you then re-read the book at some point down the line, you wouldn’t be retreading an old path. Sure, you might be in familiar territory, but who said that meant you had to walk the same way as last time?
I continued to re-read my favorites as I got older. Sometimes I re-read when it seemed necessary, like when one of the sequels to Eragon came out and I had forgotten what had happened in the previous books. But usually, I would re-read just for the pleasure of it. I remember a distinct Sunday afternoon during my freshman year of high school when, with a biology test looming, I spent four hours skimming through my favorite parts of The Deathly Hallows. The next day, when my advisor, who happened to be my school librarian, asked me how my test had gone, I responded by saying, “I have decided that Harry Potter has no flaws.”Sophomore year something changed: I got serious about my reading. Under the instruction of Dr. Tarkington and Mr. Moxley, I began to understand not only that reading could be a source of delirious enjoyment but also that literature could serve a guide and a model to understanding and living life. As I intentionally sought out and devoured more books than ever before, both classic and modern, my attitude to re-reading shifted. Why should I go back to Harry Potter when I still hadn’t read American Pastoral, A Confederacy of Dunces, or Heart of Darkness? Why revisit Beloved to fill the surely countless holes in my appreciation when Sula, Jazz, and Paradise all still beckoned?
I talked to another English teacher about my shift in attitude, asking him, “Do you re-read?” The twenty-seven-year-old proceeded to list the number of times he had re-read some of his favorites since high school: Great Expectations at least five times, The Sound and the Fury at least seven, and Beloved every Christmas. I asked him why, and all Mr. Kimball needed to tell me was that he just loved to go back to the books he loved.
My cross-country coach similarly told me that he had gone through a period in his twenties where he re-read The Brothers Karamazov every year. He went on to explain to me his concept of the “comfort read.” Similar in theory to eating comfort food to fill your body with some sort of sustenance when you’re sick or otherwise, Coach Russ goes back to his comfort reads whenever life gets busy or stressful. “I must’ve read The Count of Monte Cristo ten or twelve times,” the forty-year-old man told me.
I specify the age of these teachers to highlight what for many of us can be the crux of re-reading: the factor of time. If you re-read your favorite book every year for fifty years, does that not account for fifty different books you could have read instead – even more, perhaps, if your favorite happens to be a Russian behemoth or a Dickensian doorstopper. One could read a single work by nearly half of the Nobel winners since the prize’s inception, or all of the complete works of multiple prolific authors like Ernest Hemingway or Evelyn Waugh, at the expense of a yearly To Kill a Mockingbird or Pride and Prejudice. For the past few years, I saw re-reading as an activity that I just didn’t have time to do.
Then came Bolivia. Our program library happened to have copies of two of my favorites: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. On a whim, I went back to both, one after the other, going through both in a matter of two or three days each. And what did I find? Two books different from the ones I remembered reading less than two years ago.
What changed? I certainly have more context on Latin American dictatorships to appreciate the finer brutalities of Trujillo’s reign in the Dominican Republic that Diaz recounts in Oscar Wao. The first time I read Unbearable Lightness I hadn’t yet read Anna Karenina and therefore couldn’t pick up on the significance of the dog named Karenin. Perhaps during my first go round I didn’t have as keen a sense for the subtleties of language in both books that both writers play with, between Diaz’s infusion of Spanish words into his English prose or Kundera’s recurrent “Es muss sein!”motif.
But maybe now, two years older with a high school degree, two serious romantic relationships, and a host more successes and failures under my belt, I have an enhanced perspective on the world and myself. Maybe now, after two years of countless ups and downs, I’m a different person. And if there’s one thing we readers know for certain, it’s that different people can get vastly different things from different books.
What purpose did all my theoretical counting and calculating serve then? Why did I feel the need to qualify my reading intake through concrete volume? I found I needed to ask myself why I read in the first place. Is it to fill as many rows of my Reading Spreadsheet as I can, to be able to talk about as many authors’ contrasting styles as possible?
It’s not. I don’t read just to cram accumulated information or synthesized wisdom into my brain in hopes of at least some of it sticking, or to fly through stories as quickly as I can just to get to the next one. I read to understand and appreciate every aspect of my life, good and bad. I read so I might both broaden myself and understand what’s already there. I read to enjoy, to understand, to live. And maybe re-reading helps me do just that.
My return to re-reading has given me a change in perspective. I’m resolving to abandon the completionist urge to burn through and check off as many works as I can, instead feeling free to revisit, reconsider, and savor the books that make me love myself, my friends, my surroundings, and the world. I’m ready to start re-reading again, if only so that my old favorites can give me a new lens into how I might’ve changed. And I think that everyone’s favorite teenage wizard will be the perfect place to start.
From Peter: “I’d like to dedicate this post to my Mom, who provided me with my first books for consumption before I could even read, and my Dad, who never faltered in his claim that he would buy my sister and me as many books as we wanted.”
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Peter Taylor graduated from Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville in the spring of 2017. He is currently taking a gap year in Cochabamba, Bolivia, working with a water-distribution NGO and learning Spanish. Next fall, he will start at Princeton University to study Comparative Literature and Creative Writing. When he’s at home and not reading or writing, he’s playing guitar or spending time with his family and friends. He’s excited to get back home to his girlfriend Halle, his job at Parnassus Books and the Mexican restaurant El Stuffed Pepper, where he always orders the Chuy’s Special with steak.
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Top image copyright here.