Writer Kate McIntosh discusses the pros and cons of rereading old favourite novels when there are so many new titles to delve into.
In March, award-winning writer Derek Owusu appeared on BBC Radio 4’s A Good Read, in which two guests discuss with presenter Harriett Gilbert a book of their choice. Owusu chose F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934). He first read the book around four years previously, wanting to read more by the author of his favourite novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), and thought it was “almost as good [as Gatsby]”. It was a surprise, then, to hear Owusu’s updated opinion on the novel, having reread it in preparation for the radio programme. “I just wish I didn’t reread it, I just wish I left it in my mind as this classic…reading it for the second time I realised it’s nowhere near as good as Gatsby, it’s not polished enough”, he told an amused Gilbert and fellow guest, the newsreader Jane Hill. In the ensuing discussion, Owusu called the novel “really tedious”, “frustrating to read”, and said he felt the story “didn’t go anywhere”. Ouch.
“I just wish I didn’t reread it, I just wish I left it in my mind as this classic…"
However, rereading doesn’t have to be such a painful, disappointing, regrettable experience. It can bring comfort, familiarity, and it demands less of us as readers than tackling something new. Anna, a junior doctor, told me about her positive experience of rereading. Seeking to read something she knew she would enjoy, she recently reread the Harry Potter series: “I hadn’t read it since I was a child and I wanted to see what it was like reading it now that I'm older,” Anna said. She thinks she got more out of it than the first time around: “Because I already knew the plot and the characters I felt I then picked up on things I hadn’t noticed the first time,” she explains. “I was also surprised by how much of the detail I had forgotten since first reading it.” Anna enjoyed her reread at least as much as she had when reading the series for the first time – possibly more.
"I cannot remember the last time I shunned the attraction of something new and intriguing for the comfort of an old favourite."
That said, the American writer David Galef has pointed out that rereading does not just lead to perceiving more about the works – it also “dulls certain sensibilities”, such as suspense and excitement. I have never had an experience quite like Owusu’s, although I do remember incessantly rereading parts of a favourite novel, My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, years ago and realising that the style of writing was somewhat repetitive; the parts ostensibly told by different characters sounding increasingly like the same voice. What puts me off rereading, however, even just once more and perhaps many years later, is more the fact that time spent rereading is time that can’t be spent discovering new books. The list of books I would like to read is practically a tome itself, and never seems to get any shorter. I cannot remember the last time I shunned the attraction of something new and intriguing for the comfort of an old favourite.
Maybe, if Anna’s experience is anything to go by, I am missing out on a great experience. Or maybe, listening to Owusu, rereading would ruin a lot of the books I thought I loved. Perhaps the perfect book – giving away more with each read but never dulling Galef’s sensibilities, only improving with familiarity – is somewhere out there, just waiting to be discovered.
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