“…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?