As many of my blog readers know, I’m a big fan of revisiting old favorites (books, films, art works) and I often do this. However, as a reader, the relationship between revisiting a book I’ve read and enjoyed the past and counting it as reading or not didn’t occur to me until I read Jessica Yang’s article “Does Rereading Count as Reading?”. At least, it didn’t until I decided to join the annual Goodreads reading challenge this year. Goodreads lets their readers set a goal for the year of how many books they want to read and then keep track of books on their site in an effort to encourage people to read more.
The idea of keeping track of how many books you read might sound like a foreign concept to those of us who are avid readers but I know it’s helped me focus more on finishing books and less on non-reading related activities (like binge-watching TV shows). My view is that, as a writer, voracious reading is almost part of the job description. However, I think many people feel as Yang does, that “I’m somehow cheating… lying to myself and that [Goodreads] yearly reading challenge bar” (par. 2).
For Yang, the issue isn’t so much that you’re not reading a book for the first time when you chose to reread it (since often times, when we reread a book it’s because we haven’t read it in a long time) but that the first-reading experience is gone because “rereading an old comfort read isn’t challenging… [and] it’s not exactly intellectually enriching either” (Yang, par. 3). However, there is one aspect of rereading that we experience – the joy that we had reading the book the first time (although this might not always be true, as I’ll explain below). When you consider this, the question of whether rereading counts as reading changes. Per Yang:
“In the end, I guess, it all boils down to what you think the goal of reading is. If it’s too [sic.] put words into your brain and enjoy yourself, then yeah, I’ve read a ton of books this year. If it’s to improve yourself, challenge yourself intellectually, and well, put new words into your brain, then maybe I’ve only read a paltry handful of books so far.” (par. 4)
So in Yang’s view, rereading isn’t reading if you’re looking for the same intellectual challenges as when you read the book for the first time does but if you’re reading just for the fun of it, rereading does count as reading.
My perspective on the question “is rereading considered reading?” is a little different. As I wrote in my blog post about art the second time around), rereading a book might not offer the same challenges as when you read it for the first time but it often times offers new or different challenges. Unlike Yang, I believe reading is a two-way street – it’s not just about the book that you’re reading and what the author put into it but also about what you as a reader bring to the table. In this sense, when you read a book you read as a teenager, say, twenty years later, the book may not have changed much but you have. Your world experiences have broadened, your perspective on life and your beliefs have developed and evolved. All these mesh with the story you’re reading and the authors’ themes and points so that your experience of the book is different each time you read it.
I wrote about how this happened to me with two favorites that I revisited from my teens. I reread Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth a few months ago and I talked here about how my perspective on the protagonist Lily Bart evolved after having reread the book at different times in my life. I talked about how I championed Lily on my first reading of the book but came to dislike her intensely on subsequent rereadings. However, my most recent rereading brought more compassion for her position even though it didn’t make me like her all that much better. Similarly, I reread Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and wrote here about my changing attitude toward the protagonist Esther Greenwood as well as how I realized how much the book lacked the brutal honesty and originality of a woman’s voice that made me a fan of Plath’s poetry and still drive me to pick up her book of collected poems from time to time.
As a writer, this can also happen when revising work that written a long time ago and maybe even assumed was dead. This happened to me with my upcoming series, The Waxwood Series. The series started as a long and complex novel in three different points of view that I wrote back in 2004. I decided to separate the three different perspectives into three different novellas so I had to rereading the original novel carefully before I started the first book, The Order of Actaeon. As I reread the story for the second point-of-view character, named Bolina in the novel, I came to see that the most poignant scenes happened outside of the main storyline. These were scenes between Bolina and her mentally ill aunt, Wanda. I realized the crux of Bolina’s story was in her relationship with her aunt. While I had externalized her story more in the novel (for very specific psychological reasons I’ll probably blog about one day), to reach her psychological reality, I had to focus on their relationship, volatile and complex as it was. This story turned into The Claustrophobic Heart (including a makeover of names), which I am currently working on for National Novel Writing Month.
But the biggest surprise that came out of my rereading of the novel was the story for the third novella, Dandelion Children. I changed the story solely based on my second experience reading the novel. In Book 1, a minor character known as Stevens intrigued me and I realized there was a story that needed to be told about him and Vivian, the daughter of the Alderdice family on which the novella series focuses. So book three of the series will feature Stevens as a more prominent character as well as Vivian.
We read books for many different reasons and I do think Yang is spot on to suggest that enjoyment and intellectual challenge are two of the main ones. But I think for whatever reason we read, when we reread an old favorite, we are seeing it with fresh eyes and getting something out of it.
Yang, Jessica. “Does Reading Count as Rereading?” BookRiot. Riot New Media Group. 11 July 2017. Web. 8 November 2017.