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Rereading + J.D.

“…those four extraordinary books that bear rereading again and again and again.” — Robert Thompson, Syracuse University, tonight on The Newshour

When I heard about the death of J.D. Salinger today on the radio, I wondered if I had anything interesting to say about him. I love The Catcher in the Rye. In that, I am hardly unique. What else could I possibly say?

I began to think about rereading that book, and the concept of rereading in general. I have probably read The Catcher in the Rye more times than any other book. At one point, decades ago,  I realized that I had read it at least twenty times. For one period of my life, I read it every year. The only book I may have read as many times is Charlotte’s Web. Those books can play like movies in my head. The characters, the scenes, and the language are a part of my mental furniture.

A friend recently remarked to me that she rarely rereads books. I understand the logic. There’s only so much time, and there are so many books. Why re-experience something, when there are all those valuable new experiences to be had? For some people, I imagine the same principle holds true for movies. From a rational, utilitarian point of view, a second viewing is a waste of time.

Clearly, though, this is not my frame of mind. When we discuss a book in my book group that I have already read, I usually reread it. Just for fun, I have reread The Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien’s trilogy, Moby-Dick, Little Women, Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field, and dozens of other books, including those that I’m teaching (like The Aeneid, which I’m lucky enough to be teaching yet again this semester).

Am I wasting my time?

Well, I think most people would concede that you get something more out of a great book the second (and third and fourth) time through. I was bewildered by The Great Gatsby when I read it as a teenager. I’m glad I gave it a few more chances as an adult.  I took The Catcher in the Rye dead seriously the first time through in high school. Only later did I realize how funny it was.

Movies, too, bear re-watching. I just saw two of my favorite movies at the Cinematheque again. I’ve seen Days of Heaven several times now, and I made it through the wrenching The Thin Red Line one more time. Did I appreciate them even more? Did I get more out of them? Am I more admiring of Terrence Malick than before? Yes on all counts.

But why do I do this, really? Is it because I’m mining them for more meaning? Do I want to learn more from them? Not really. I do it because it’s fun. It’s like eating chocolate. When the Days of Heaven music began, I teared up and couldn’t wait for what was to come. I know if I pull one of Salinger’s books off the shelf, or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Anne Lamott’s essays or Ron Hansen’s Atticus, I’m going to have a good time.

Not rereading books is, to my mind, a way to deny yourself pleasure. It seems puritanical.  I love the spinach salad at Jimmy O’Neill’s. Should I never go back, because there are so many other restaurants to try? Sex was fun, but — been there, done that — why waste my time trying it again? Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony? The Cleveland Museum of Art? Death of a Salesman, Romeo and Juliet, or Our Town? Why repeat yourself?

Some may respond that revisiting Jimmy O’Neill’s or Shakespeare takes up only a couple of hours, whereas a book consumes many more.  I’m lucky, in that I’m a fast reader, but, okay…rereading The Brothers Karamazov takes more time than eating a salad.

But it’s worth it, to me. What about you? What have you reread? What movies do you watch over and over? Or is one time through all you need?

9 Comments

  1. When I was a kid, I used to read the same books over and over and over. Certainly not to mine them for more meaning, but because I loved revisiting that particular planet. I hardly ever read books more than once now. Even though I used to be a fast reader, I’m not anymore and can hardly keep up with the new books I want to read. But maybe I should start a shelf of books that I like so much I’d read them over and over.

    Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 9:50 pm | Permalink
  2. Beth McGee wrote:

    Like Kristin, I used to read books many times when I was a kid– “Harriet the Spy,” “The Phantom Tollbooth,” and “Gone with the Wind.” Now I have little shelf space, so I only keep books I absolutely love. There are times of the year that I re-visit a few of those books each year. And there are some books that I reach for when the emotions in my life need some grounding and support. But in general, I seldom re-read books.

    Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 9:58 pm | Permalink
  3. There are so many books I would like to read again. One of my favorites was The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by EL Konigsburg. I read this story of running away as a child when I was a child. I reread it when I had children. It was the same in many ways and different too. It was not as exciting now as I identify with the parents and not with the exciting, successful and immortal children. It confirmed how my perspective on life has changed. I will reread Catcher in Rye as soon as I am able. Thanks for the nudge.

    Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 10:16 pm | Permalink
  4. Susan Grimm wrote:

    When I was little I used to read The Dandelion Cottage at the beginning of every summer. I also reread The Little White Horse. I think then it was a case of revisiting a specific kind of pleasure, invoking it again. That is one kind of rereading. But if I reread The Tempest, for instance, which I did for a while because I was teaching it every semester for several years, I get that same thrum of pleasure as well as new insights and connections. Maybe what you get out of the reread depends on how deep the work you’re revisiting.

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 7:44 am | Permalink
  5. Thirty-some years ago I owned part of a bookstore in the Arcade. I was clueless to the point of anger that guys in their 60s (my age now) would march right by the new books I wanted them to buy and head for the Penguin classics. Now I totally understand. There’s no way I’m reading Jonathan Ames or Nick McDonnell. I used to read new books like I see new movies, partly because I wanted to be up on the latest cultural happenings. Now I go back and read those books better, relieved of that treadmill.

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 8:32 am | Permalink
  6. Joel Couch wrote:

    The Catcher in the Rye never clicked with me. I don’t remember the story. Maybe I had too much in common with the main character, so I had no need to enjoy rebellion vicariously through him. Now, perhaps, I could read it again to laugh at his youthful pomposity and at my own.

    I’ve read Dune several times. Many fail to make it through the first fifty pages. If you can get that far, then most likely it will have grabbed you. Phillip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld trilogy has been read through multiple times, but these are the tastes of my bygone years.

    One taste that I acquired as a young man that I’ve never relinquished is for the best films by Akira Kurosawa. I’ve probably watched Seven Samurai seven times, and Ikiru remains the best film I’ve ever seen. Having them lying around the house as videos helps to to bolster the viewing count.

    Kathy only inquired about books and movies. If I stop to think about how many times I have listened to recordings of my favorite music, then it must be said that the statistics are orders of magnitude higher. Books and films are nice, but music seems to be tightly entwined with my DNA.

    If a work enlightens and amuses repeatedly, then it is clearly a creation of higher value than most such works. If you can’t enjoy something twice, then it may not have been worth the time to have gone through it the first time.

    Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  7. Lisa Marin wrote:

    I know I read Catcher, but I don’t remember anything about it. There’s not enough time to re-read books: my books-to-read list right now numbers just over 2300! And I add 5 for every 1 I cross off. But I have a plan. Should I live long enough to read all the books on my list (impossible)I will then delve into the cache of books-already-read I have stored up for that never-to-come day. With rare exceptions, the only books I actually buy are books I’ve already read that I know I want to read again. (Pretty much everything else comes from the library or as a gift.) The books in my cache are all over the map – Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, The Pleasures of Philosophy, Gilead, History: A novel by Elsa Morante, Peace Like a River, David Copperfield, The Life of Pi, Anna Karenina (already re-read twice),Moby Dick (ditto), Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Book of Job. There are many more.

    Movies? I’ve seen a few twice. Can’t go back and truly linger over a single scene, a snippet of dialog, a moment, like you can in a book.

    Previous commenter Mr. Couch brings up music. A completely different story! Of course! Numerous repetitions of Bach, Saint- Saens, Brubeck, Mendelssohn, Steely Dan, Beethoven….

    Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 8:23 am | Permalink
  8. Erin O'Brien wrote:

    I’ve read each of my brother’s books countless times. It’s like visiting him, only more painful. I learn something new about him every time–or maybe I just remember something.

    As many times as I’ve read Dr. Seuss, his brilliance never ceases to amaze me. I think “Green Eggs and Ham” is pure genius.

    I love rereading books and should do it more often.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 11:05 am | Permalink
  9. Kathy wrote:

    I agree with a lot of you that childhood was a good time for rereading. Though I’m a Dr. Seuss fan, I don’t reread him regularly ;–)(and my favorite’s The Cat in the Hat). The Wind in the Willows and Little Women were big favorites. I also reread some of my Weekly Reader books — especially Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians — many times. My older sisters passed down to me the Trudy Phillips series. I read those a million times. Anybody know those books?

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 1:11 am | Permalink

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