Returning to a book you’ve read multiple times can feel like drinks with an old friend. There’s a welcome familiarity — but also sometimes a slight suspicion that time has changed you both, and thus the relationship. But books don’t change, people do. And that’s what makes the act of rereading so rich and transformative.
If you’ve been an avid reader for any amount of time, chances are you’ve revisited a book you love. A novel with interesting characters, that story collection that reminds you of home, a volume of poems you were given as a child. Whether it’s nostalgia or simple pleasure we seek varies from person to person. But one thing is for certain: Every book is a reason in and of itself.
The number of books I receive every month can be glorious and daunting. It might be five, but it could be 20. And they all look damn beautiful, what with their unique designs, gripping blurbs, and freshly dried ink. Stories chock-full of murder, secrets, and political intrigue, novellas that seem to carry the weight of the world. Sure, I want to read them all, but that’s impossible. I have children and a wife and dinner and I’ve been putting off getting an oil change for far too long. But also because, see, in addition to selected new releases, I really want to have that drink with the old friend.
There are three books I reread annually. These are the shoo-ins, books that I specifically set time aside for during the year. The first, which I breeze through every spring, is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Published posthumously in 1964, it’s his classic memoir of 1920s Paris. The language is almost intoxicating, an aging writer recalling an ambitious yet simpler time.
Another is Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, her poetic 1975 ramble about everything and nothing; a moth consumed in a flame, a baptism, a little girl burned in an airplane accident. It begins: “Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split.” I wouldn’t say there’s a “plot,” per se, but perhaps it’s the disfigurement of 7-year-old Julie Norwich in that accident. Anyway, if you need a neatly fleshed out plot to enjoy a book there’s a pretty good chance you’re a sociopath.
The third book is Julio Cortázar’s Save Twilight: Selected Poems, because poetry. And because Cortázar.
While I tend to buy a lot of books, these three were given to me as gifts, which might subconsciously add to the meaning I attach to them. But I imagine that, while money is indeed wonderful and necessary, rereading an author’s work is the highest currency a reader can pay them. Especially if the author is no longer around to spend money.
A voracious reader is a non-stop consumer of worlds. But one’s interpretation of these worlds morphs and shifts depending on the personal experiences one brings into the reading. We identify with a character’s pain because we’ve felt pain, and so on. The beauty of rereading lies in the idea that our engagement with the work is based on our current mental, emotional, and even spiritual register. It’s true, the older I get, the more I feel time has wings. But with reading, it’s all about the present. It’s about the now and what one contributes to the now, because reading is a give and take between author and reader. Each has to pull their own weight. There are books I hated in my early 20s that I now see as powerful and revelatory.
The best books are the ones that open further as time passes. But remember, it’s not because they changed. Every letter and punctuation mark is exactly where it always has been, and where it will remain forever. It’s you who are different; it’s you who’s been affected by the depth of your experience. And it’s you that has to grow and read and reread in order to better understand your friends.
Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He’s on Twitter: @itsjuanlove
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