Recently, as so often happens to me, I stumbled across an article on Twitter. This time the article was about the activity of rereading books. The suggestive title – You can come home again: the transformative joy of rereading – and the first few sentences drew me in:
“Returning to a book you’ve read multiple times can feel like drinks with an old friend. There’s a welcome familiarity — but also sometimes a slight suspicion that time has changed you both, and thus the relationship. But books don’t change, people do. And that’s what makes the act of rereading so rich and transformative.”
It so happens that the activity of rereading has been on my mind lately. First of all, since I just finished writing a paper with my colleague Frank Hakemulder on rereading (currently under review) and appreciation. We found that an increase in appreciation from first to second reading of a literary text is mainly due to increases in comprehension. However, I do think that our study has its limitations, the first of which is the fact that it is an empirical study which naturally constrains the reading experience. The ‘transformative’ experience rereading can offer us – as described in the article written by Juan Vidal that I quoted above – is something that an empirical study like the one we conducted cannot say anything about. For that we would need longitudinal, qualitative studies asking people to reread a book in various stages of their life and comment on their experiences. (Sound like a lovely study, by the way, but one that does not, unfortunately, fit my research plans at the moment)
I think it is definitely true that rereading a book leads to new realisations about style, story, and meaning of a book, but more importantly it leads to new realisations about self and what the book means to us in this moment (and how that meaning has perhaps changed from your last reading). In many ways rereading is even more satisfying to me than reading a novel for the first time. Of course, there is also this melancholic longing that sometimes comes with rereading: you wish you could still experience the wonder you felt the first time you read the book. Nevertheless, rereading affords readers with other pleasures: a sense of familiarity (of coming home), reminiscences about a younger self and the times you read this particular book, discovering hidden gems in books you thought you knew inside and out.
Exactly for these kinds of affordances, I always assumed that rereading is something that everybody does. It turns out that it is not an experience that is shared by everyone, judging by the discussions I have had with colleagues here at my research institute. Some of them were quite surprised to learn that more than 17 percent of a recent survey study sample had reread certain books more than four times. What’s more is that these were also the participants who reported the highest absorption scores. No doubt this is related to what Frank Hakemulder and I found in our experiment on rereading: once you already know a book and reread it again, comprehension is greater, which leaves more room for discovering and experiencing other aspects of the book to the fullest.
Since I moved to Germany a year and a half ago I have been learning to speak German. Nothing has improved my German as drastically as when I started to read in German. Practice speaking another language all you want, only reading in another language can give such a boost to your vocabulary, gives you a sense of expressions and humor. These things are really hard to grasp and hone in random conversation. It was not until I started rereading some of my childhood favourites like Harry Potter and The Neverending Story in German, however, that I noticed a significant increase in my German skills. I knew the books well enough that I felt comfortable to not look everything up and keep the flow of reading intact. Reading remained pleasurable, I was able to absorb myself in the story and simply forget that I was reading it in a language that I have not completely mastered yet. These rereadings were transformative in a different way: they lead me to a deeper understanding of language – not just the German language, but also Dutch and English – and how we use it to give shape to our world.