It’s a fantastic idea to re-read novels. I’m currently revisiting Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, a vampire thriller. The story is excellent: from the references to Vlad The Impaler to the depiction of Istanbul as well as the historical commentary on the Byzantium and Ottoman Empires. If you have not read The Historian, I highly recommend it – especially if you enjoyed The Secret History by Donna Tartt or The Name of The Rose by Umberto Eco.
Yet this is a re-read and it’s not something I often do. For a while, I saw little point in rereading. Why re-read a favourite when there are other books waiting for you? Most booklovers have long books waiting to be read. It can seem indulgent and a waste of time to reread a novel. The aspect of time is a crucial point for readers – a novel simply is not a poem, short story or movie. That’s why readers can get picky!
Still, I must mention the benefits of rereading. For one, the purpose of reading changes. You are no longer familiarising yourself with the plot, characters or setting. These narrative points were made clear on the first read. Rather, the second and third reading allows greater focus on theme, literary references, style and the more subtle aspects of the novel. This makes for a more enjoyable read. Yet plot, character and setting still matter – but you’ll notice aspects of them that you missed on the first reading. In many ways, a novel is like an endless treasure chest of pirate gold: you’ll always find something previously undiscovered.
It’s not just enjoyment, either: intellectually enriching novels such as Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy offer greater wisdom on closer look. This is the result of the reader developing a stronger bond with the characters. We know what happens in the end and this haunts all of the character’s actions. I’m more likely to pay attention to the historical and political context during a reread.
Another delightful part of rereading is the lack of need to ‘understand’ a novel. You’ve already read it and can now determine the extent of your enjoyment. For The Historian, my reread clarified why I liked the novel in the first place: the lush scenery, the historical references, the page-turning thrills and the beautiful depiction of Europe. However, there’s a possibility of disliking a novel on second glance or developing different associations with it. This is common with novels from childhood or from years ago. There’s nothing wrong with this! Our tastes and preferences change. It’s through rereading that we develop a sophisticated understanding of our tastes.
Also, I’m not suggesting that rereading is superior to reading novels for the first time. I preference the latter even though the enjoyment is less.
The majority of my reading are books I have not read before. Yet, as I’ve argued, there’s plenty of value in re-reading. It’s worth allocating time for – een if it’s two or three novels a year.
You shouldn’t reread any book. Rather, pick a favourite to start with, preferably a story you read over a year ago. Revisiting childhood favourites, such as Peter and Wendy or the Harry Potter series work well. Or, pick a novel you are having second thoughts about. It’s entirely possible to not enjoy a novel on first read but appreciate it at a different stage in your life.
Either way – keep reading.