On Re-Reading

By on November 29, 2010

How often do you re-read a book? Personally, I tend to read a novel I enjoy again and again, whenever I have the time, until it falls apart on me (especially if it’s a paperback). Yet, working in the library, I’m astounded at how often patrons ask me to look up and see if they’ve read something already. Now, if they truly just want something new, that’s understandable. If I wanted to re-read a book, I’d most likely own a copy, not borrow it from the library multiple times (although it’s entirely possible!), but these patrons will gladly announce to me, often emphatically and with an almost disgusted expression, that they would never read a book twice!

On the subject of re-reading, I’ve found a few remarks by C.S. Lewis that I thought I would share:

The majority never read anything twice. The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand for half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it. But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. -C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can only come once) but for a certain surprisingness. The point has often been misunderstood. …It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time. Knowing that the ‘surprise’ is coming we can now fully relish the fact. We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiousity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. …It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness of the peripeteia. -C.S. Lewis, On Stories

C.S. "Jack" Lewis

C.S. "Jack" Lewis

I’m curious to know what you all think.

P.S.: Happy Birthday, Jack!

The above quotes are from two books of collected essays by C.S. Lewis:
  • On Stories: And Other Essays On Literature (Harvest Books, 2002)
  • An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 1992)

December 12, 2010


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