Why Reread Books? The Pros and Cons of Rereading

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A Well-loved Book

Rereading is a guilty pleasure for many people. Patricia Meyer Spacks calls it a “sinful self-indulgence” in her book On Rereading (14). How can a dedicated reader abandon their “To Be Read” pile (TBR), full of new stories waiting to be discovered, and waste time with a book they already know? At the same time, the act of rereading has been heralded by academics throughout history as the only way to truly understand a text. When confronted by someone who has “read that book a dozen times,” the serious reader feels a twinge of inferiority.

An examination of the pros and cons of rereading should be undertaken to appreciate its worth and, perhaps, therefore to alleviate the uncomfortable feelings in either situation.

The Benefits of Rereading

Why reread? The answers are as numerous as the reasons for reading a book the first time, enjoyment chief among them. However, rereading can also give the reader a sense of comfort in the stability and unchanging nature of a story or nostalgia as it brings back beloved memories. It can even be a social experience when rereading a story to relate to someone reading it for their first time.

Understanding Complexities

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Francis Osborne

Academics most often discuss the benefit of rereading as a way to gain better understandings of complex texts and of the self.

Teachers of early reading-age children agree with foreign language teachers that rereading improves comprehension beyond basic words, to understanding what is happening, to appreciating details, and finally to taking analytic steps (Perez, Foreign). For adults, especially in the academic environment, rereading is indispensable to understanding a text well enough to build good critical arguments. This is so important that works of literature have occasionally been defined as such by their re-readability.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his Lectures On Literature,

“When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation.”

Rereading is necessary to build a greater understanding of a text than can be accomplished on a first reading. Without rereading, it may be impossible to appreciate a writer’s more subtle talents or to comprehend a text’s intricate ideas and themes.

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Lewis Buzbee

Understanding the Self

Rereading is also an act of self-reflection. Spacks writes, “The enterprise of purposeful rereading in itself creates a kind of self-consciousness” (242). Since the book itself never changes, it can function as a constant against which to measure the reader’s growth. Spacks explains, “The stability of reread books helps to create a solid sense of self….it records both the development and the continuity of the self” (4). Rereading, then, can be a way to re-examine the self and the changes it has undergone since the initial reading.

The Drawbacks of Rereading   

However, there are possible drawbacks to rereading as well. Rereading is time consuming—drawing readers away from their TBR piles—and can be disappointing if a beloved book falls short of rosy memory. It can also be uncomfortable to re-examine oneself by rereading a book, to realize the changes you have undergone. Furthermore, some things may be lost in a rereading and increased comprehension is not necessarily assured.

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Carl Deuker

The Gain-loss Phenomenon

David Galef proposes in his book Second Thoughts the Gain-Loss Phenomenon of rereading: the fact that some things can only be experienced in a first reading and are lost in subsequent ones. He writes, “The standard view is that rereading is an additive process, wherein we perceive more and more about a given work until we have internalized the very words. However, such continual review also dulls certain sensibilities” (Galef 18). Among these sensibilities are the effects of plot, such as suspense, and spontaneity (Galef 19). Emotions like pleasure, excitement, and curiosity cause the reader to rush through a story and pass over the subtle intricacies appreciated in re-readings, and yet they are also important elements that may be dulled by those subsequent readings.

Increase Familiarity ≠ Increased Comprehension

Furthermore, unless your rereading is focused and intentional about gaining new insights, rereading may not result in improving understanding. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press published an article in 2014 which criticized rereading as a study strategy since it “often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the material” (quoted Weimer). This applies to rereading literature as well. Someone who has read a book a dozen times may not have a more nuanced understanding of the text than someone who has only read it once or twice, but was intentional about gaining—and retaining—their understanding with each reading.

Why Reread?

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Viggo Mortensen with a copy of The Return of the King

So why bother rereading if there are such drawbacks? It is important to keep in mind that Galef’s gain-loss phenomenon is different for each book and each reader. A mystery may lose suspense—or a short story’s twist ending, the element of surprise—but gain anticipation in a reread. While Galef points out that this is not necessarily an equitable exchange, the right reader may find it more enjoyable experiencing the story with the end in mind (19). William Faulkner’s works might be difficult to understand, even in a second or third (or even fourth) reading, but for the right reader that challenge is part of the entertainment.

There is inherent value in rereading, but that value is subjective. If choosing to reread to increase comprehension of subtler, complex artistry, be intentional about gaining more from a text than mere familiarity. If rereading for pleasure, keep in mind the elements of a story that give you joy, and be aware of which elements may be lost in a reread.

No reader should feel less accomplished because they neglect their TBR pile to reread a favorite or if they only reread once in a blue moon. Each has its own pleasures.

Works Cited

Foreign Language Teaching Methods. “Lesson 3: The Importance of Rereading.” Utexas. coerll.utexas.edu/methods/modules/reading/03/. Accessed on 7 Sept. 2016.

Galef, David. Second Thoughts: A Focus on Rereading. Wayne State University Press, 1998.

Perez, Samuel A. “Rereading to Enhance Text Understanding in the Secondary Classroom.” Reading Horizons, vol. 30, no. 1, 1989, scholarworks.wmich.edu/reading_horizons. Accessed on 7 Sept. 2016.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. On Rereading. Harvard University Press, 2013.

Weimer, Maryellen, PhD. “Is Rereading the Material a Good Study Strategy?” Faculty Focus, 14 May 2014, www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/rereading-material-good-study-strategy/. Accessed on 7 Sept. 2016.

Further Reading

Ernest Hemingway on Writing by Ernest Hemingway

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

Lectures On Literature by Vladimir Nabokov

Lectures to My Students by Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Making It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by P.C. Brown, H.L. Roediger III, and M. A. McDaniel (esp. chapters 1-2)

On Re-reading Novels by Virginia Woolf

On Stories: And Other Essays in Literature by C.S. Lewis

“On the Influence of Re-reading on Mind Wandering” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2015.1107109)

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love by Anne Fadiman

“Why Reread? Evidence from the garden-path and local coherence structures” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2016.1186200)

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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39 Comments

  1. Allie Dawson

    Interesting observations: I believe it was C.S. Lewis who said that you haven’t really read a book if you’ve only read it once (or something to that effect). I think much of the value of rereading depends also on the book itself. If it’s a “classic,” among the greatest ever written, then rereading only peels back the layers of meaning and depth that can’t be captured on a first read. Something like “The Babysitter’s Club,” though, while it might bring up some warm and fuzzy nostalgia, but rereading in adulthood only proves how shallow it is. Still, I think even those sorts of books are with rereading (or skimming)–it would at least prevent you from recommending it to someone else.

    • rust
      0

      I used to not re-read. I’m not a fast reader and I figured there are too many books to read.

  2. Kira Veal
    0

    I actively re-read. Often it’s because I want to revisit a particular scene or an emotion that a particular book evoked. Sometimes it’s about the comfort of something familiar…I don’t have to mentally invest in the world-building because I already know it, so can just sit back and relax.

  3. Dennis
    0

    I often reread mystery books. If I give it enough time, I will have forgotten who did it, allowing me to read with the proper suspense again.

  4. Floóor
    0

    I grew up reading everything from Greek mythology to Enid Blyton and some books (Jack Kerouac, Evelyn Waugh, etc) struck a particular chord in me at certain times in my life and I’m sure that I will never recapture those same feelings by re-reading those books – and I won’t re-read them because I want to retain that original feeling forever and not be disappointed.

  5. CAmpaign
    0

    If I book is really good, I will re-read it. How often I reread it depends on how good it is.

  6. Pok
    1

    I re-read books, sometimes many times over. It’s just like watching your favorite movie over and over. I naturally read very fast so I miss out on occasional details that I discover when I read them again.

  7. Crane
    0

    There are books that were such a wonderful experience to read.

  8. SHAH
    0

    I read Gone With the Wind the first time in my teens. I read it again every few years. It is a good ‘feel good’ book for me.

  9. Jaleesa
    0

    I will occasionally reread books from my childhood to recapture that feeling of being 10 or 12.

  10. Kacy Blakely
    0

    My reading is mainly non-fiction/reference books which I am happy to re-read if I need to refresh my memory on a particular subject.

  11. Ahmed
    0

    I love to re-read a book because I feel like I pick up on subtle nuances with each read. Sometimes my own mood or experiences will influence the way I interpret symbols or inferences.

  12. SeanGadus

    Hi, this is a really interesting article! It seems that there are both advantages and disadvantages to rereading and you clearly illustrate both sides. I enjoyed the reading list you added at the end of the article. It is a great addition to the article.

  13. I think it’s obvious that the desire to re-read a book should come and be fulfilled naturally. We shouldn’t read something again just because it’s considered to be a good practice. If you really feel like your reading emotions will stay as vivid as the first time, or even deepen, and if you really feel like that book that has enlightened you can open your eyes even more when you read it again – if you feel that way, then do it. After all, they do say that we only see or hear what we are ready to perceive at the monet, so later, in different circumstances, at a different age you may see things there which you did not notice before. But to force oneself to re-read is rather dull and, most probably that not, fruitless. A book is not the multiplication table, it is not to be revised just for the sake of repetition itself or learning by heart.

    There’s also one, I’d say, anxious thing about not only re-reading but also reading for the first time, in general: often we decide to read something not because we’re drawn to it but because somebody said that having read this or that book will add extra points to one’s erudition image or coolness level or ‘how-come-have-you-not-read-it-yet-everybody-must-read-it’ 🙂

    What i want to say is, there will always be pros and there will always be cons, but we can lose our minds if we’re going to follow every must-do and evaluate each recommendation naggingly. As the author stated in the end, we shouldn’t feel less accomplished if we don’t do this or that 🙂

    I believe that – except for some emergency situations, probably – nothing else but genuine curiosity and intuition should govern our decision-making, no matter if it’s about choosing your career or just picking a book to read 🙂

  14. I was just thinking about rereading a book. It takes me months or sometimes years to consider reading one particular book. I reread to refresh my memory because I never remember exactly what happens, but mostly to experience the journey, not one of reading but the characters.

  15. Marybelle Km.
    0

    I don’t re-read books, but I’m simply like that for most types of media.

  16. Wert
    1

    I usually re-read two to three books a year on top of whatever else I read. I think re-reading can be just as exciting and illuminating as reading it the first time especially if you are in a different time or place in your life, because books are just as much about what you take from them as what is actually in them. And as we grow and have new experiences and our tastes change, what we take from books will likely change as well. And then there are just some books that blew me away or I enjoyed so much that I had to reread it right away or relatively soon.

  17. flood
    0

    I most commonly reread books when I have a new book out in a series I enjoy (then I reread the whole series from the beginning) or when I’m feeling especially depressed and/or anxious and need to calm down/receive comfort. The books I reread most commonly/frequently are: the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton; Absolutely, Positively by Jayne Ann Krentz; Getting Rid of Bradley by Jennifer Crusie; Manhunting, also by Jennifer Crusie; A Little Fate by Nora Roberts; and A Little Magic, also by Nora Roberts. The aforementioned five stand-alones are also my go-to books for those rare occasions when I’m in a reading slump and nothing appeals.

    I only buy books that I love enough to reread. I have quite the collection!

  18. dollar
    1

    Re-reading my favorite books, especially series books, is like visiting old friends.

  19. I can see both sides of this coin. I think it depends upon what is being read and the purpose for which it is read. For me, difficult technical material that it is crucial to absorb may require one or more rereads, particularly if I lose focus or am distracted. I only reread for entertainment if it is something I particularly enjoyed but read so long ago, I have forgotten many of the details and would just like to revisit the experience. I think rereading is a matter of preference and/or necessity and should be the decision of the reader.

  20. shugo828

    I have always found that a major pro for re-reading books is that when one does re-read, the book always seems different. This is due to the changes that have occurred in our life since we first read this book and so we have a new perspective regarding even the smallest issue.

  21. dardem
    1

    Books can be very different each to you read them as YOU are different each time you read them. Different moments or themes will stick out to you than what did in the past etc.

  22. Easterling
    1

    Re reading the books brings back some involuntary memories and we voluntarily crave for them.

  23. Jesus
    0

    I re-read books all of the time (e.g. LoTR, HP, Narnia & favorite authors). It’s amazing how many new things you can discover that you may have missed before or see a new perspective of a concept you hadn’t recognized the first go around.

  24. Shila Rapp
    0

    I read rather quickly so I think re-reading lets me pick up on things I may have sped over the first (20th) time. Comfort is definitely the main reason.

  25. As someone who is “guilty” of rereading novels I find this article very interesting. Not in the sense that I reread with the intention of gaining further information but in fact , I reread to relive to experience and reconstruct images and scenery in my mind.

  26. kyletsakiris

    Some thoughts of my own:

    As largely someone who reads predominately non-fiction, and philosophy books at that, re-reading is an indispensable part of my education. The best philosophical works are those that we go back to time and again (think Plato’s “Republic”), finding subtle differences in the arguments of a certain philosopher or thinker, and how we interact with them with each new reading.

    For example, in re-reading Plato’s “Republic” a second time, I found myself less likely to agree with Plato then I did the first time after I was able to read thinkers like Aristotle, Hannah Arendt, Karl Marx, or John Rawls (who all mulled over concerns pertaining to “justice”). Even so, the questions that were raised in the “Republic” by Plato still remain as relevant today as they did centuries ago.

    Re-reading fiction has never been something I particularly enjoyed. One reading through the “Lord of the Rings” series for me was enough, The suspense, the beauty of the prose, and the development of the characters never seemed to strike me as emotionally as it did the first time.

    Be that as it may, re-reading can be an integral part of our self-education and our ability to formulate reasonable arguments and responses ourselves to the questions that authors raise in the first place. I love the bit about how re-reading can be an exercise in self-reflection, to see where our sentiments, ideas, and beliefs have changed over a period of time.

    “Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner.” – Seneca, “Letters from a Stoic”

  27. Excellent piece, the fast pace flow from pro to con and back really kept the read enjoyable. It would be interesting, I think, to add a personal encounter that you have had with reading/re-reading, perhaps it allowed you to find a new critical purpose for a text. I find that reading the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir allow me continued understanding of their complex philosophies and my own evolving concept of angst and freedom.

  28. Although I really love reading, I’ve always felt my reading comprehension and memory are so high I don’t need to reread, and therefore I don’t need to spend money on books that I could get from the library. My home bookshelf, therefore, is filled with gifts from childhood birthdays and Christmases. Rereading, for me, is innately tied to the sensation of having the physical book in my hands. Maybe it’s a generational thing.
    As a youngster, I tried to collect all 100 or so of the Boxcar Children books, not because I expected to reread all of them or even enjoy any of them as I grew up, but because owning the physical things felt like an accomplishment. (Why does anyone collect anything, after all?)
    My favorite books that I own are the Complete H.P. Lovecraft and the Complete Sherlock Holmes. They’re both old-fashioned hardcover bricks, and I expect to enjoy the experience of reading and, once I finish, rereading them. It won’t be for increased comprehension of complexities or understanding myself, though. It’ll just be for the nostalgia of where and when I got the physical books and the sensation of holding them again.

  29. Brittanie

    I reread books often! I find rereading books expands the mind. It allows me to experience something different each time. That’s the best part about books is being able to get something different out of them each time. Some things catch my eye one time but something opposite next time!

  30. I had a professor in graduate school who reread every book before she taught them each semester, and she confessed there was always something new for her to discover in excellent literature. She wrote her dissertation on Edith Wharton more than thirty years ago, but was as invigorated and thrilled to teach a seminar on Wharton to graduate students as she was when she first discovered her writing. To this end, I’d say the answer to your question is that rereading is essential, but it also demands that the text be of a high enough quality to offer complexity for good readers. This is where the argument gets murkier, because the elitists get to pick the canon, and they often leave out writers whom they deem unworthy as a group (feel free to pick any minority group/gender and place them here). Still, avid readers are a great group to consult for recommendations on quality, and as the number of students studying literature dwindle, expanding the boundaries of “acceptable” narratives is probably a better direction than declaring that literature is dead or inane or unworthy of rereading.

    Also: what about rereading for comfort? I find certain books call to me when I need to experience a feeling, and it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve read it. I know it is reliable. I’m unashamed of my penchant for certain kinds of genre fiction, simply because I want to “hang out” in the day-to-day constructed world it offers. Anyone who reads Harry Potter wants to taste pumpkin juice, go into the common room and sit by the fire, or take a walk around the lake as much as they want adventure. To some this might be the only reason they reread, and they should feel validated too.

  31. Cherly
    0

    A book with complexity will offer up different meaning throughout one’s lifetime.

  32. Sam
    0

    i read hemingway’s sun also rises 3x. at first, i hated the character of lady brett and thought she was superficial. upon later readings, i felt sympathy for her. that book lends itself to multiple readings.

  33. crow
    0

    I adore reading. Always have and always will. My mom ran a library in our basement when I was growing up in Philadelphia and throughout the very worst times I remained faithful to the written word. My love of reading has served me well. I was the first member of my family to get a BA. I was also the first to get a MA. Did have the good sense to drop out of my PhD program when told my research WOULD NOT pass the IRB’s. No regrets. I am retired on disability and read 3 to 5 books a week. Read bios and fiction, mostly, but also return to favorite writers from Colette to Joyce Carol Oates. Nothing beats curling up on the couch on a rainy afternoon with a cup of coffee and a great read!

  34. Debrah
    0

    I just took a course “Intro to Literature” and had to read Wuthering Heights. I liked the book and may later reread it..since I will get more out of it if I can read it for “pleasure” and not because I have to. I didn’t read it as a child..It looked too thick and boring. Just proves you can’t judge a book by its cover…

  35. Dani
    0

    I like to think of books I reread as old friends. There are some authors who require several readings to really understand the book, or whose writing is so complex that you can enjoy it on different levels.

  36. Fascinating to hold the pros and cons of rereading next to each other. However, I feel, obviously completely from my own personal view, that the two don’t hold the same weight as one another. The pros far outweigh the cons. If one of the few cons is seeing change within oneself, is that even really all that bad? With that, I’m glad to see the well argued article end with the fact that this is a rather subjective topic.

  37. John McCracken

    I actually really resonated with “The Gain-Loss Phenomenon” and it’s focus on sensibilities being dulled. I am always concerned that my immediate or involved joy in reading a book will be lost if I explore it again. and I recently reread some of the first Harry Potter novels in the wake of the franchise’s re-purposed excitement. I unfortunately was kind of devastated to found out that my love for the series has dulled over time, but this is something that comes with the act of reading. I believe that we find joys in the moments of reading and sometimes we should leave those books closed, but that is just me.

    I do also believe that it is different for different genres or forms of literature. I always reread poetry or short fiction to push more and more out of the smaller texts, which is something I think that comes for those art forms. I don’t often reread novels or longer texts because once you get through a storyline or know a motive of a character, there seems to be less that can surprise you.

  38. I read so many big science fiction books at a young age. As an adult, I’ve gone back and reread books like the Hyperion series and realized he emotional subtleties I missed as a teenager. When reading books for research in the field of dance, I read first with an open mind and then again with a specific question in mind. The questions become organic because my first impression of the text is helping to guide my quest.

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