“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” — Vladimir Nabokov
I read that quote years ago and never forgot it. It struck me as so true.
It makes me think, specifically, of the summer between ninth and tenth grade.
I’d so loved J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” that I asked my mom for “Nine Stories” at the bookstore in the Taunton Galleria Mall.
I started reading it immediately in the back seat on the way home, so excited, and … so confused. I felt I was missing something. And the endings all felt so abrupt.
The book sat on the shelf until, about five (formative) years later, I picked it up.
This time, my mind whirred with excitement. I was underlining every other passage — finally getting it.
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” I noted, in capital letters, underlined was “ABOUT SEYMOUR GLASS!” And Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut referred to Walt Glass! These were all about the Glass family!
For a 20-year-old Salinger fan, making the connection to “Seymour: An Introduction” and “Franny & Zooey” was more than huge. It was life-changing.
It was a pivotal moment in my life as a reader.
It was the moment I discovered the power of rereading.
I read “Nine Stories” again this summer, for about the sixth or seventh time, and again, as I almost always do, came away with a new favorite story.
The third time I read it, I thought “For Esme — With Love and Squalor” was the best story in the book. Now, it seems too obvious. My favorite is “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” — a story that seemed to be about nothing but two silly girls talking the first time I read it, and now struck me as so painfully beautiful, I choked up at the end.
This summer, I reread a bunch of old dog-eared favorites, including Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” Cormac McCarthy’s “All The Pretty Horses.”
Because when you read a book — a good book — for the second, third, fourth, fifth time over the course of many years, you read it differently. The same book will read as a new story. You’ll take away new passages as brilliant, while lines you thought so wonderful the first time now seem trite.
It’s not the book that’s changing, but you.
And that’s what Nabokov was talking about.
You need to have changed somehow, grown, felt, hurt, loved, cried, experienced life in new ways — and interpreted and analyzed those experiences in new ways— before you can have a new relationship, a stronger relationship, to that book, to that author.
The moment a book finally clicks is a beautiful moment.
Take another very recent example: For a long time, most of my 20s, I thought “Slaughterhouse-Five” was my favorite Kurt Vonnegut novel.
But after recently rereading “Timequake” for the first time in maybe eight or nine years, I have a new favorite.
As with “Nine Stories,” I first read “Timequake,” in high school and just plain didn’t understand it.
The second time I read it, I underlined some favorite quotes — but I still didn’t truly get it.
This time I was blown away.
I saw that in an Ouroborus-esque vein, “Timequake” is more about Vonnegut trying to write the book, than about the secondary plot taking place.
See, the first time I read it, I was expecting narrative. I didn’t understand yet that with Vonnegut, you have to throw narrative out the window.
One reason why “Timequake” leapt to the top of my Vonnegut list is that you can’t go two paragraphs without stumbling upon either a quote that makes you chuckle aloud or a quote that makes you choke up.
A few of my underlined “Timequake” passages, both old and new:
“Beating the daylights out of a stranger’s parked Dodge Intrepid may well afford fleeting relief from symptoms of stress. When all is said and done, though, that can only leave the life of its owner even more of a crock of s— that it was before. Do unto others’ vehicles as you would have them do unto yours.”
“There is a planet in the Solar System where the people are so stupid they didn't catch on for a million years that there was another half to their planet.”
“Still and all, why bother? Here’s my answer: Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone.’”
“I am eternally grateful to him… for my knack of finding in great books, some of them very funny books, reason enough to feel honored to be alive, no matter what else may be going on.”
Lauren Daley is a freelance writer and book columnist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @laurendaley1. Read more at https://www.facebook.com/daley.writer.