On Rereading

Our recalled affection for a book is, after all, always woven into how we entertain and balance the best parts with the less artful passages or the wooden infrastructural bits the novelist couldn’t bear to takeout. Novels are forgiving forms: good writing over here often forgives less good writing over there, so that the whole may prosper. Rereading all of a novel sometimes invites us to be more forgiving ourselves.

The point here (unsurprisingly) is that rereading a treasured and well-used book is a very different enterprise from reading a book the first time. It’s not that you don’t enter the same river twice. You actually do. It’s just not the same you who does the entering. By the time you get to the second go-round, you probably know—and know more about—what you don’t know, and are possibly more comfortable with that, at least in theory. And you come to a book the second or third time with a different hunger, a more settled sense about how far off the previously-mentioned great horizon really is for you, and what you do and don’t have time for, and what you might reasonably hope to gain from a later look. Every time I open a book for the first time I feel I’m taking a risk. It’s part of the great excitement of reading. It’s like standing in the street and watching a glistening, sequined tightrope walker traverse the empty space between tall buildings. If he falls, I’m implicated because I’m watching. Though maybe he won’t, and I’ll be implicated in a triumph.

But with rereading, less is thrillingly at risk—though it can still be thrilling. Everything just seems to happen on solider ground—not high up. In that sense, rereading is more like what we originally meant by reading—an achieved intimacy, a dappled discernment, the pleasures of volition, of surrendering, of time spent lavishly, the chance of glimpsing (but not quite possessing) the heart of something grand and beautiful we might’ve believed we already knew well enough.