Once is Not Enough

I don’t understand people who say they don’t re-read books.

Now, I know that there are books, and there are books.

There are some books I’ve read that I’m sure I’m never going to read again—they weren’t worth it first time round, or only barely worth it. Why squander any more time?

Then there are books of information that I might read once, absorb the information I need, and discard the empty carton. It did its job, I did mine, and the relationship is now over, thank you very much.

Some books of information I can’t possibly absorb in one go. I was fascinated by Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People, but I have, unfortunately, forgotten most of it. Should I re-read it, I know I would find lots to learn and re-learn. It’s not a priority for me to re-read at present, but I’m not saying “never” either.

Then there are non-fiction books that deal richly, profoundly, with the spiritual life. I re-read them because my soul still needs food. Until they become so woven into me that I have absorbed their messages and am living them out, I will still need to re-read them. I have not yet learned all that Lewis has to teach me. I doubt I ever will. So I read him and read him again.

There are fiction books that were fun to read once. A bit like junk food, they may taste good but I can’t live on them. They lack substance.

And then there are the novels that I re-read because I want to be in that world again. I want to hear that music once more. I want to be with Ransom and breathe Perelandrian air again. I want to walk with Emma as she slowly, painfully, becomes wiser. I want to be refreshed again by old John Ames’ insights into life in Gilead.

I am not finished with books like these because I am not finished with beauty. I am not finished with learning. I am not finished with laughing. I am not finished with books like these because they carry more riches in them than my hands can grasp in one reading.

I am not finished with them because there are delights to re-reading that those who read books once can never know.

Listen to what Lewis says in his essay “On Stories” (emphasis mine):

The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain surprisingness….  It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time…. We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, 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 a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words. They want to have again the “surprise” of discovering that what seemed Little-Red-Riding-Hood’s grandmother is really the wolf. It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness….

So here’s to re-reading books. Here’s to great wine.



2 thoughts on “Once is Not Enough

  1. now i feel better about those books i’ve worn to tatters while feeling guilty that i wasn’t reading something literary and classy-sounding…just peter pan. or the little prince. or pilgrim’s inn. thank you for putting words to why re-reading is such an exquisite pleasure!

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