I have read “The Great Gatsby” at least four times in my life. I will read it again. The first time, I was in school — junior high, I think, with Mr. Braafladt — and, as I recall, I found it boring. So much nuance. Grown-ups doing stupid things. Not enough action. Too much talking. Blah blah blah.
The second time I was probably in high school or just after, and I think I read it because I had seen the movie version with Mia Farrow. This time I read it as a love story. At that time in my life, everything was a love story.
I read it again some years later, and again a few years ago when I was working on my MFA, and there might have been one other time in between. Each time it was a different book. Or, more precisely, each time I was a different reader.
The nuance became sophisticated, not boring. The overly long sentences became gorgeous. The characters grew tragic, no longer glamorous. Those parties came to mean something else, as did that green light on the dock. The spectacles of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, I am embarrassed to say, I had not fully noticed the first two times, but during a later reading they became God.
The last time I read it, I was enthralled. It shimmered. I thought, “Have I really read this book before?”
There are so many reasons why we reread books. The right book can be a touchstone through your life, something that brings you back to a particular time or feeling. Sometimes a book changes with each reading, grows more complex and interesting. Sometimes you just want to dive into a familiar story — for the coziness of it, knowing in advance precisely how much stress and angst there will be, knowing what ending you are headed toward. Comfort reading, I guess.
And sometimes (I’m thinking here of “Pride and Prejudice,” of course) you just love the delicious wit and the just-this-side-of-caricature characters and you want to immerse yourself again in that world.
I reread “Great Expectations” because I love Joe Gargery and I keep hoping that on a new reading Pip will somehow treat him better. I reread E.B. White’s essay “Death of a Pig” constantly, every time I come across a reference to it, because it is so vivid and true and because the pig’s life and death are no different, really, from a human’s life and death.
“The pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting,” White writes. So the only thing that distinguishes us from pigs is our ability to tell a story? Maybe.
It was an e-mail from a reader that got me thinking about all this. Will Shapira of Roseville mentioned that he rereads “The Alexandria Quartet.”
“Three readings so far,” he wrote. “I further appreciate [Lawrence] Durrell’s mystical, gorgeous poetic prose and learn more about each of the four principal characters on whom the Quartet is based.”
I have a friend who rereads May Sarton every year. I have a friend who decided to spend a summer rereading all of the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian.
On the other hand, I have friends who blithely give away every single book they finish, saying, “I’ve read it. I’m done with it.”
So, as always, I turn the question to you. Do you reread books? Any particular book? Any one book that you return to over the years? What are you looking for? Do you find it?
Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I think this could be an interesting conversation.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.