I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here when I speak of the pleasures of reading. But perhaps not enough is said about the pleasure of re-reading.
I think there have been four works of fiction that have most influenced my writing life: Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, [its graceful, evocative, and often hilarious writing], Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, [its wonderful characters, and that extraordinary first chapter] The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, [the explosive energy of its prose style] and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, [the breathless romance of historical adventure bolstered by a brilliant cast of characters).
(I suspect that if any of you have read more than a few of my books, you will note the influence.)
It’s worth noting that I read all of these four books before I reached my twentieth birthday. Now, in my eighties, I still find them wonderful. Indeed, from time to time, I re-read them, in whole or in part. I do so for continual enjoyment, but also to remind myself what great writing is all about, the kind of writing I have always—and still—aspire to. These books—and the writers—are my constant teachers.
As a reader who is almost always swept away by the plot, re-reading allows for a more leisurely stroll through the text, allowing me to note writing nuances I previously missed, a greater appreciation for character delineation, plus the sheer pleasure of taking note of writing skills I took for granted. I also note aspects of plot details I have inevitably passed over. Moreover, I think re-reading always provides a greater understanding of a great writer’s depth and perception of life. Such writing deepens my experience and my understanding of the world. And when, as is sometimes the case, the re-reading takes place after years, I am reading the book as a different person. I think you can measure your growth by how you take to a re-reading.
As a young writer, I was much attracted by Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. A recent re-reading found me disliking the book a great deal. I found the stylistic mannerisms annoying, and the characters downright unlikeable.
A comparable re-reading of Austin’s Pride and Prejudice made me much more aware of her sharp satire and delicious humor than I could grasp when younger.
[All this said I have an almost visceral dislike of re-reading my books. I too often find myself confronted and confounded by the bits and pieces I could have, should have made better.]
It’s commonplace to sometimes think, I wish I could have lived a past time again. Perhaps the closest way of achieving that is by re-reading a book that was once dear to you.
I’ll say the obvious: we all grow older. By way of contrast, great books don’t become older, just wiser.