As I write this—April 16, 2023—Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical, The Phantom of the Opera, will end its New York City Broadway run—the longest run in theatrical history, with 13,981 performances. It began in January 1988.
I must have been one of the few people not to have seen it, but a vast number have. One person saw it sixty-nine times. Another one hundred and forty! Another made a life by seeing it performed in many countries but was most impressed by the one he saw in Sweden, because, he said, it was done “differently.” Someone had the street address of the theatre tattooed on her arm! These folks call themselves “Phans.”
There are parallels with books. I once met someone who told me he read the entire Harry Potter series six times. I have met folks who have read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice often—these folks call themselves “Janeites.”
In pursuit of data to support this essay, I checked, and there is currently posted a Goodreads review of my The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, in which the reviewer indicates she read the book sixteen times.
As I have confessed in this blog, every Christmas I reread Dickens’ The Christmas Carol. That’s—another confession—a lot of Christmases.
I’m sure many of us know young readers who reread their favorite books a fair number of times. How many of you have read a favorite picture book to a young reader so many times you could and perhaps do so with a weary heart?
What does one get with rereading? If one has been engrossed with the plot so much that you are turning the pages at a fast flip, you may miss many of the nuances of a beautifully written text, and indeed aspects of the plot. There are real joys in what might be called slow, attentive reading, often best found when rereading.
But there are negative aspects. When I first read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the writing fascinated me. A reread only brought me irritation by way of its mannered style.
I recently reread Dickens’ Great Expectations—which I first read in my twenties. A reread astonished me by how much of the book is about abuse, pounded out, and received. Virtually every character is touched by this cruelty. When I first read it (in the 1950s) I may not have even known what the term abuse meant.
By the same token, as we have been informed and educated about racism, misogyny, and prejudice of one kind or another, rereading may inform us about critical things we have missed.
Of course, when writing, I am constantly re-reading my own work, forever (so it feels) finding things to make better. Indeed, if I have reason to reread one of my own books (published years ago) I inevitably find things I could have improved. No surprise: I don’t like to reread my own work.
All that said, the return to a text which was moving, or meaningful in other ways, can be a deep comfort, a kind of literary comfort food, or even a revival of vital wisdom. It can be like a visit with an old friend, a return to a place that fills you with fond memories, a reminder of the good things in life.
There are lots of lists of fine books to read. How about a list of books worth rereading?
Does anyone care to share?