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On rereading

Winter jasmin

“For me rereading is the litmus test of a work of art” Edna O’Brien.

“We finish a book and return to it years later to see what we might have missed, or the ways in which time or age have affected our understanding.”

‘Reading Like a Writer’, Francine Prose

I would love to reread more than I do. I watch the way my seven-year-old daughter reads — returning to old favourites again and again, sometimes going back to the start of a series as soon as she reaches the end — and I remember the deep pleasure of reading a book over and over until it is as familiar as a dear friend.

But it’s hard, as an adult, to make the time to reread. The piles of books that I want to read — both virtual & literal: by my bed, in the loft room, on the shelves at the end of the kitchen — seem to grow exponentially. There’s a strange pressure to read the next thing, or the latest thing, or the classic thing that one hasn’t yet read. Nicole recently wrote a great post about avoiding that pressure and returning instead to the pleasure of reading.

When I reread The Children’s Bach earlier in the year, I realised how right Francine Prose is when she talks about the ways in which time and age affect our reading. It was the third time I’d read it, the first as a mother, & though I loved it fiercely each time, it filtered through my own experiences so that my reading of it was, in some ways, completely different. And I like thinking about that: the ways in which a book changes for us as we ourselves change. I haven’t read Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (it’s on the virtual pile) and I’ve only read Middlemarch once, but I can understand how something as rich and complex as the world George Elliot creates could always have new things to teach you.

And, of course, there’s a more selfish reason to want to reread more: I want to see how it’s done. No matter how hard I try to concentrate on the invisible strings the first time I read something, I always get so caught up in the pleasure of reading that, after the first few chapters, I forget any sense of reading for technique or structure or anything but story. With a short story it’s easy to return to the start and read it through again, but I never do that with a novel. I can remember being struck by the passage in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking when she talks about her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, reading in just that way,

“One summer when we were living in Brentwood Park we fell into a pattern of stopping work at four in the afternoon and going out to the pool. He [John] would stand in the water reading (he reread Sophie’s Choice several times that summer, trying to see how it worked) while I worked in the garden.”

So, confession time. I keep a reading notebook & quickly scanning through the last twelve years, these are the books that I’ve reread: Bliss and Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey; Anagrams by Lorrie Moore; Metroland by Julian Barnes; Rain by Kirsty Gunn (read Theresa’s thoughts here); Nemesis by Agatha Christie; Gilead by Marilynne Robinson; Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf; A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother by Rachel Cusk; The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald; The Summer Book by Tove Jansson; and, now, Fair Play by Tove Jansson. Looking through the list, I realise that I would recommend any of them in a flash.

How about you? Avid rereader or not? And is there a single book that you return to again and again? I’d love to know how other people manage the balance between rereading and seeking the new. And, to encourage my own rereadings, I’m going to start an occasional series here: back soon with more on Tove Jansson’s Fair Play.


Photo: the winter jasmine is out in the hedge — bright yellow against green.


  1. For me, rereading is like comfort eating. There are books I return to again and again. Gerald Durrell is probably the author I return to the most but Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse), Thomas Hardy and Agatha Christie (I made the heaviest weather ever of A Caribbean Mystery when in early labour with N) are others. And then there are the children’s books! I shan’t shame myself by saying which series I return to most repeatedly – and continue to collect – but there are so many I’m looking forward to sharing with the children. N and I have recently read two of Gerald. Durrell’s children’s books and I think I enjoyed them just as much as he did.

    Of course I don’t have time to reread as much as I used to so it’s a fine pleasure when the chance does arise. Sometimes I make the chance by going to bed extra early so I can fit in comfort reading and whatever book from The Pile I am currently on.

    I also reread specifically to unpick a novelist’s technique. Sometimes this is just to marvel at it but other times it’s to learn: for example, I’ve recently reread Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible to look at multiple narrators – and concluded it was a technique I probably wasn’t up to yet.

    And sometimes I reread just because it’s where my hand falls on the bookshelf. It’s certainly curious how differently you view a book that you last read as, say, a nineteen year old. Two of my old favourites – The Great Gatsby and The Bell Jar – remain old favourites but when I look at diary entries I made about each of them in my late teens (yes, I know!) I wonder if I was reading the same book.

    Hmm, thinking about it, if I was ever invited on Desert Island Discs (ha ha!) I wouldn’t have a clue which book to pick. Just one? How could that ever be possible?

    Sorry – epic comment……

    • I love epic comments 🙂 And the comfort eating analogy makes so much sense — that’s definitely the way T returns to books. I’ve thought about the DID question too — I’m always far more worried about the book than the music. And early nights, yes. I’m just off to bed with a mug of mint tea to grapple with The Goldfinch (in hardback surely the least bed-friendly book ever!) — but then it isn’t really that early…

  2. kerryclare says

    To the Lighthouse really is one of my favourite rereads. And A Life’s Work is one of my most fascinating rereads: I read it first before I had children and thought I understand it, but I didn’t one bit, not at all.

    • Ah, yes, A Life’s Work definitely comes into sharper focus when you read it in the middle of the night with a screaming baby on your shoulder. I can remember being amazed, second-time, by the eery exactness of her description of her daughter’s face as it segues from sleep to screaming despair.

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