I know an eight-year-old boy who starts reading every new book within 15 seconds of getting his hands on it. He usually completes his first reading within the hour, and then proceeds to start again at the beginning. Breathlessly, he rereads the book seven or eight times before putting it down with a satisfied sigh. Do you discover new things in the book every time you reread it, I asked. Of course not, he replied, looking at me pityingly. There’s only one story and I get it all the first time. Then why do you read it over and over again, I asked, undaunted. Because I want to read the same story over and over again. He spoke slowly to accommodate my clear lack of intelligence.
The boy gets it, I think. The rest of us are too busy justifying our craving to reread our favourite books to accept the simple truth. To pick up a yellowed, tattered copy of a Turgenev or a Tagore is almost a guilty pleasure today, one that has to be explained away by the need to rediscover old texts from new perspectives. But why pretend? I reread, not in search of new meanings in familiar words and sentences, but precisely to taste the old meaning all over again. In exactly the same way, every single time.
Why is it intellectually admirable to let a symphonic movement by Mahler or a pot of mishti doi provide the same unashamed pleasure every time, yet when it comes to rereading a book, why must we be differently enriched each time?
Summer, invariably, incurably, turns my thoughts to old favourites. Yes, yes, Amitav Ghosh’s new book is due this summer. Postpone reading it till autumn. You don’t HAVE to have read-it-before-you boasting rights. And come on, what are your other options for new books? Quite likely, a selection from ‘Oh Shit, Not Again’, or ‘Love Story of an MBA and an Air Hostess’, or ‘Proposed Her in First Period, Broke Up in Third Period’, or ‘Mom Gave Me A Mangalsutra But Hubby Gave Me A Halter’ (if some of those books have not yet been written, they will be by the time you read this essay). Take your pick.
But how risk-free is the rereading option? Granted, you loved The Grapes of Wrath at 19 when your blood was hot. And Love in the Time of Cholera was unputdownable at 25 when love and literature went hand in hand. True, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter was clearly the greatest novel ever written at 15 for reasons everyone who’s read the book knows perfectly well. But where’s the guarantee that they will be just as exhilarating when you reread them at 28? Why will rereading those old books provide the same pleasures any more?
The answer is simple. Rereading a loved book makes you go back to being who you were when you read it the first time. The relationship with those chapters and paras, with that smell and that cover, snaps back in place, resumed in an instant with the same throbbing of the heart, quickening of the senses, racing of the pulse. You know that eyes-closed mmm with the first bite of a Flury’s pastry after 20 years? That’s what a tempestuous reunion with a pre-read book should be like, taking you back to that initial moment of epiphany. Every time I go back to Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books, I break out in pimples.
Rereading isn’t only about going back to books you love, it’s also about revisiting books you hated the first time you read them. The sheer joy of realising that you are as constant in your loathing as in your love can seldom be surpassed. I hated Graham Green’s claustrophobic novels in my college days, and now that I am older than most of the characters in his novels, I still hate him for the utterly skilful manner in which he suffocates me. Would I have that assurance of a new book?
I often reread books when I’m moving them from the spot where I left them last on the bookshelf. Not from cover to cover, but a few favourite pages, sometimes a specific passage or a few random ones. There’s no need to read the entire novel. You can hold infinity in the palm of your hand, eternity in an hour, and War and Peace in a few minutes.
Hell, sometimes you don’t even need the book; just imagine you’re rereading your Italo Calvino or your Haruki Murakami or your Buddhadeva Bose in your head. Let the words flow as you remember them, for rereading your memory is the most satisfying of all.
And when it comes to the value of rereading, don’t even get me started on poetry.