The Perils of Re-Reading

Ah Nostalgia! That fickle emotion, which prompts people to do crazy things. Things like complaining that the Millennials have fucked up the country, when actually you—baby boomers– were in charge of it when everything went to shit. Things like revisiting your alma mater with your college roommate and then overhearing a couple of punk ass children college students call you “old losers” and coming very close to fantasizing about punching them in the face. (Or is that just me? Yes? Okay.)

And things like re-reading books from the recent or distant past.

Now sometimes this is a great experience. Sometimes the experience of re-reading a book from my adolescence has shown me how much I’ve learned and grown as a person. It’s revealed things in the text that I missed the first time around.

Re-reading The Poisonwood Bible, for example, and knowing much more about world politics than I did in high school when I read it the first time, I see the effect of colonization  as well as the individual journeys of the characters. It turns out that To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye are actually interesting when not over analyzed by a cranky woman six months away from retirement. And a recent return visit to Hogwarts revealed an ocean of untapped love for Molly Weasley and a new-found empathy with Professor McGonagall.

-Professor-Mcgonagall-professor-mcgonagall-23866604-500-332
sure, three 11 year old children, you’re going to stop the 2nd most powerful wizard of all time. Of course you are.

So sometimes re-reading books is a wonderful trip down memory lane. Time travel without the risk of disrupting the space time continuum. A reminder that you are wiser and generally more awesome than you once were.

BUT.

Sometimes not.

Sometimes re-reading a childhood favorite reveals a totally blatantly obvious not even a little bit subtle religious metaphor that your innocent young mind missed– because magic and talking lions and shit — and now that you see it you wonder if you have to change your whole opinion about the series because it’s selling an ideology that  you have some big ass problems with.

Yup. I’m looking at you—Chronicles of Narnia.

And sometimes you find out that the authors of your favorite books were actually terrible people who did TERRIBLE THINGS and you have to wrestle with the fact that this totally changes your perception of those books, and is it okay for you to still love what they were to you when you needed them and how they affected you in positive ways in the wake of learning facts that would prevent the you of today from ever picking up those same books in the first place.

Why you gotta be like that, Roald Dahl and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Why?

And sometimes you realize that what you thought was super romantic in high school was actually kind of rapey and generally not okay even if there were, like, telepathic dragons involved. Wah Wah.

*gives Dragonriders of Pern the side eye*

And sometimes you go and learn a bunch of stuff about race and social justice and then you realize that those books you thought presented people of color in “a historical context” are actually, like, straight up racist.

Oh hey, Gone With the Wind. Plus you qualify for that one up there also. So that’s TWO problematic points for you.

And sometimes you realize that a series really should have ended about 4 books earlier than it did, before the main character lost all her spunkiness and became all about gossip and having babies and not doing anything interesting anymore. And it makes you want to cry because you LOVE this main character and you remember loving her MOAR when you were younger and as much as you hate the whole ‘getting married is the end of the story’ thing you wish that if she couldn’t continue being quirky and awesome into adulthood that it would have ended when they got married so you didn’t have to suffer through her becoming a SUPER BORING and TOTALLY unoriginal adult.

WHY ANNE SHIRLEY? WHY?!    (seriously– stop after Anne of Windy Poplars and skip right to Rilla of Ingleside because the three books in-between are BORING)

And sometimes, people….FUCKING SOMETIMES you want to punch Ma in the face for constantly making Laura feel bad about being who she is and telling her to be more like Mary and guilting her into giving her candy to Carrie. And how when the neighbor girl visits and wants to take Laura’s doll home and Ma is all like “you’re a big girl Laura, you don’t need Charlotte any more so you should just give it to her” and so she does even though it breaks her heart because she LOVES Charlotte and then she finds her precious doll that she took such loving care of DESTROYED BY THE SIDE OF A POND. But good girls are selfless and endlessly giving and can’t have anything ever. Including pretty much the only real toy Laura ever had in her life that some fucking brat ruined and then threw away.

Seriously, Ma Ingalls —Bite Me. You’re the ACTUAL WORST. Also you’re totally racist. Just sayin.

Picking up any book is a bit of a risk, but when re-reading a book that held special meaning for you the risk is ten fold. Maybe you’ll love it even more, find more to discover, more insights into the world.

Or maybe it will ruin your childhood. You just never know.

ruin my childhood

What do you think? What good and bad re-reading experiences have you had?

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53 thoughts on “The Perils of Re-Reading

  1. There are books I have had to stop re-reading because I keep finding more and more things I don’t like about them. And I don’t want to ruin my memories of them! Definitely feel these feels.

  2. Great article. I feel like I should give ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ another chance.

    My best re-read experience was with ‘Pride and Prejudice’. I first read the book back in high school; however, I found the style of writing in 19th century literature boring back then and the themes within the novel dull. My experience reading the book a second time around couldn’t have been more different. Everything from Austen’s writing style to her character development made me fall in love with the story. In my particular circumstance,

    1. Yes!! I have mixed feelings about including Austen in high school curriculum. On the one hand, it is classic literature and I want young people exposed to it, but so much of classic literature talks mainly of experiences that high school teens just haven’t had yet and so can’t really relate to. Once I hit my mid 20s and everyone around me was all “when are you gonna get married” I identified much more with Austen’s work.

      1. Exactly! I’m in my early (mid?) 20s right now and it’s only at this point I can truly appreciate Austen’s humor. Glad to know others had the same experience. 🙂

      2. Austen is incredible to re-read, Pride & Prejudices especially. You pick up on so many nuances, jokes, and little things you missed because of how invested you are in Elizabeth’s thinking on first reading, I think. When I re-read it as a grad student, my friends & I had fantastic talks (using the hyperlinked text at Republic of Pemberley to email our “evidence”) about certain parts–I remember that I thought Lizzy might actually be in love with Wickham, rather than infatuated, which caused some shrieking and rending of garments.

        I feel the same way about Jane Eyre. The more I read it, the more I get out of it.

        But, oh goodness, Anne Shirley in those later books. It’s like she actually recedes into the wallpaper. The yellow wallpaper.

      3. This makes total sense in retrospect. I read Pride and Prejudice in high school and disliked it, but read Northanger Abbey junior year in college and was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved it (and laughed like a loon).

  3. I’m actually terrified to reread some of my childhood favorites. I tried rereading The Secret Garden with my daughter and was appalled at how MEAN everyone was to Mary. Both her parents just died and all they could talk about was what a spoiled brat she was!

  4. A while ago I re-read one of my absolute favorite novels, Possession by A.S. Byatt, and…I was underwhelmed. What happened? Did I become so much better at critical reading in the ten or so years since I last read it? It was a terrible shock.

    I keep wanting to re-read Gone With The Wind – I haven’t for a long while because my copy disintegrated from too much handling. But I’m afraid…

    1. I’ve read a lot of discussion about this issue with “Gone With the Wind” and there is a certain amount of taking it in the context of when it was written and the setting and stuff… but for me I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t set aside the problematic presentation of race to enjoy the story. Maybe you’ll have a different experience though…

  5. This is very true! I loved the Chronicles of Narnia, and then reread them as an adult and saw all the symbolism and enjoyed them for that level of the story, and then reread them again and felt proselytized to…. but there are still some things I like about the stories, even if the more times I reread them the smaller this world-with-all-the-answers-wrapped-up seems, rather than the vast world of worlds it seemed when I was a kid.

    I also loved the Belgariad, and will probably read that series again, because I read it at a time in my life when I totally got what the main character was going through and will always remember it fondly — but that was definitely one series where the author should have left it at five books, no more, as I became more and more disappointed as the next five books ground on until the standalone “Belgarath the Sorceror” enraged me so much at how poorly written it was I wanted to copy edit it on the fly with a red pen. (Also… I’m wondering if those first five books that I loved so much won’t seem horribly sexist, patriarchal and condescending to me now.)

    It’s a rare book that keeps growing with you as you re-read it.

    1. I was just going to comment about The Belgariad. That was the first long[er] fantasy series I ever read. I was twelve or thirteen when I read it. I recently read the first book again, and while I still enjoyed it, I don’t feel like I was as into it. I haven’t picked up the second one yet.

    2. “the more times I reread them the smaller this world-with-all-the-answers-wrapped-up seems, rather than the vast world of worlds it seemed when I was a kid.”

      Yes this! I have memories of the battle in “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” being big and exciting and awesome and then I reread it and it’s all told in flashback after the fact and I was like what??

      My biggest pet peeve with the Narnia books is that when they re-released a new edition they ordered them with “Magician’s Nephew” first when it is supposed to be LAST!! Reading it first RUINS all the fun!

      I’ve never read the Belgriad series. Now I’m intrigued! Maybe it’s backward, but I sometimes have actually more patience for problematic elements of books that were written decades ago when if I read them now for the first time. But if I’m rereading them they carry all these other feelings and it makes it complicated. Or maybe I’m just weird haha.

      1. I find that interesting about The Magician’s Nephew — I actually read The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe first, but then when I had the whole series it was ordered so Nephew was first. I liked it just fine! I didn’t really enjoy A Horse and His Boy, though, and more often than not I skip it. I might reread it with an eye to the culture Lewis clearly felt was Other and Not Yet Saved, but I’m not sure that one’s ever going to grow on me.
        And the Belgariad actually has one great strength as a fantasy series at the time — it presented a great deal of human cultural diversity (though not, sadly, racial diversity — all the “bad” countries are from the East, and it’s clear the good-guy countries are all modelled roughly on European cultures). But I will likely keep rereading this one over the years, as there are some great characters and many good stories within the overarching tale.

      2. I just loved when I read Magician’s Nephew last and there was the line at the end about how years later the apple tree was cut down and the wood used to build a wardrobe and it was like **angels singing** **lightbulb moment** and I LOVED IT! I like having the explanation of the creation of Narnia and the White Witch and the Wardrobe at the end bc I felt having them first would ruin the feeling of magic.
        But maybe I’m weird.

        Horse and His Boy was actually my favorite as a kid– probably just because I liked the idea of talking horses and because the girl is kind of a badass. But as an adult it was literally painful to read.

      3. Hm, you’re right about the ending of Magician’s Nephew! I felt the same buzz in reading that, but it was because I already knew the story of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

    3. I didn’t read The Chronicles of Narnia until I was an adult (22) and already knew about the symbolism, so it was fun to me to pick it all out. I think they have good morals, but they did feel preachy. I haven’t reread them since then, but I can’t imagine my feelings will have changed all that much.

  6. I have been reading all of Stephen King’s books. Some of them have been rereads for me. I first read them at ages 11-14. I have been surprised at how much MORE I liked them this time around. There are a couple reasons for that:

    1. I’m not a terrified kid anymore who probably shouldn’t be reading Stephen King. Heh.

    2. I’m seeing so much more than the horror in them now (because I’m not a terrified kid who probably shouldn’t be reading Stephen King).

    I haven’t gone back to any childhood favorites, aside from the one I already mentioned in my reply to David. I’ve been itching to reread Narnia and A Wrinkle in Time, but haven’t gotten around to them. Maybe I’ll just leave them alone.

    1. When I was a teen I loved Stephen King’s short stories (Skeleton Crew was my JAM) but could never get into his novels. Now I could basically grind up his novels and snort them up my nose. So funny how things change.

      1. I’ve had the opposite happen.. I used to wallow in his novels, and now I can barely read most of them (except some of the earlier ones that had more *cough* editing). But his short fiction, especially as Bachman, is still good.

      2. Yes- EDITING, you still need it Stephen King. I just cannot with him anymore – I don’t know if my attention span has gotten worse or if he legit spends too much time talking about stuff that doesn’t matter to the story or what. In either case, other than trying to slog through The Dark Tower series so I can finally finish it, I’ve given up on all of his recent stuff. And, even with the DT, I’m doing it in audio book.

    2. A Wrinkle in Time is one that I was delighted to find I loved as much as an adult as when I was a kid. I’ve reread those books countless times, along with “A Ring of Endless Light.” L’Engle’s work has stood up well to me over the years. But of course it’s different for everyone.

      1. Yeah, it’s funny – I love her on principle, but actually I found that Wrinkle In Time & Wind In The Door didn’t stand up nearly as well as I wanted them to. Same with Susan Cooper. The stories are still lovely, but the good-guy-good-bad-guys-bad is a lot less compelling now than it was as a kid.

        Tamora Pierce’s Alanna books, on the other hand, I still love. All the sex went whistling over my head when I was ten, and the complexity of her emotional relationships and internal battles over strength and feminine identity is still resonant for me.

      2. I missed out on Alanna as a kid which I am TOTALLY bummed about since I know I would have loved them. I’m reading them for the first time now. I actually JUST started “The Woman Who Rides Like A Man.” Thus far there have been a few moment when Jon has gotten annoying, and I really wish Alanna was queer but in general I agree that they are charming 🙂

  7. I can understand the trepidation some have about rereading a beloved book from their childhood. But I think it’s a journey worth having, even if it’s one of disappointment. I find it fascinating to see how my relationship to stories change over time.

    I don’t think the disappointment has to be one of anger either. It’s about growing up and, if you’re lucky, about finding the true gems to hold onto and share with your children.

    Or find the ones with serious flaws, but still has real character. Sure, you might get angry at the characters, but they’re ‘real people’ too. Not everyone has to be perfect role models to make an interesting story, and even if we can’t fully understand why they’re so racist or preachy, perhaps it can help us find the human side of people we can’t quite get in real life.

    Or maybe I’m just romanticising the concept of re-reading.

    1. I think it can definitely be good re-reading books, but . . . there are a few I wish I had left alone. Even an exquisitely well-written book can be read too often; I read Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris so much that I practically had it memorized, which is not good for a work that has a solid foundation in humor. I had to shelve it so I wouldn’t get bored with it.

      But I’ve had good experiences re-reading books, too. It’s just a matter of knowing when to stop re-reading them, I s’pose.

      1. True. I think this applies to all media, but there seems to be a greater romanticisation on rereading. Though this might also depend on what subculture one is familiar with.

        I’m also curious if something like an annual read (or watching in case of movies) eases these changes in attitude. I loved reading the Chronicles of Narnia and would just pick a book up and start reading point. I grew up knowing the heavy parallels, but that might have allowed me to not be bothered by them.

        The Magician’s Nephew was always my favorite, but I’ve always loved mythologies, and that story was all about that. I loved and still love the juxtaposition of the ancient with the new. Jaded and innocent. But now I’m waxing romantic again.

    2. Well I’m never going to have children, so that isn’t a concern or goal of mine.
      And I’m not saying to not reread books because I do and I love it and I will continue to reread books always.

      I don’t think that every rereading experience is disappointing or infuriating, of course, I was merely presenting some examples of ones that were. I’ve had other rereading experiences that were lovely, or bittersweet, and served — as I said– as an interesting indication of how I’ve grown as a human.

      I’m all for characters having flaws. I love my characters to not be perfect. It’s not about that. It’s about how this thing in my memory that was preserved as lovely and meant so much to me emotionally turns out to be something that if I was reading it as an adult for the first time would find very problematic. It disrupts the memory and if my emotional attachment to that book was strong then my reaction is also strong. It’s like learning that your childhood hero stole money from the poor, or that your favorite grandparent was a racist, except there is no room for them to change– they just stay a bad There is an instinct to want to preserve that glimmering memory as perfect and it can be very disheartening to learn that an author I liked and respected– trusted if you will– sent me messages I absorbed as a teen that contributed to a culture that causes me pain.

      1. Me too!! I always found Mary to be insufferable, and as an older sibling myself, I struggled a lot with Ma constantly demanding that Laura do this or that for Carrie. Like, yes, be nice to your younger sibling, but I don’t think (again…as a long-suffering older sibling) that the younger should always get to “win,” you know?

        On the other hand, Pa was pretty cool. He was a solid guy.

  8. Jo Walton talks about the experience of re-reading and finding out that “the suck fairy” has come and ruined the book since the last time you read it and loved it.
    I had that experience with Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. I read it as a teenager and thought it was wise and funny, like the rest of his books. I reread it as an adult and thought he had become a bitter curmudgeon and I was tired of his facile views.

  9. Oh man, very true! I’m with you on the Chronicles of Narnia. I like the movies (old cartoon and newer iterations) better than the books, actually, mostly because less of that religious nonsense comes through.

  10. The only thing I can say in defense of Roald Dahl is that, after Patricia Neal’s aneurysms/stroke, he was instrumental in her learning to walk and talk again. Not saying what his motives were (he wasn’t a nice man), but he at least did that. But yeah, the rest of his personality makes his books very problematic.

    1. I have really conflicted and complicated feelings about Dahl, and MZB for that matter. I can acknowledge that they had aspects of their personality that were good and I’m sure did nice things in their lives. But the not nice things… make it hard not to take that into account when I’m rereading their works.

      1. Agreed. I just learned about MZB a couple weeks ago and am still totally squicked out about it. Doubt I’ll read her again. Dahl? Yeah, I know what you mean about conflicted and complicated.

  11. Similarly, I got through childhood without reading some really basic classics (think Charlotte’s Web). So when I did read it, as an adult, I was horrified by the “girls are stupid and can’t possibly know more than men..and they all eventually become teenaged airheads” mentality. I mean, what a horrible book for our girls to be reading! Many readers disagreed with me and were horrified that I thought that. Sorry, the proofs in the pudding folks (or the wording). If this is a grand fave, take a pass on the reread!
    Shannon

  12. I haven’t done a lot of rereading since I was a kid, only really a few books in the past few years that I’ve reread. When I was a kid though, I reread ALL the time, because books are expensive, yo. I did reread Harriet the Spy recently as an adult, and that was just as charming as it had been in my childhood, so that was a great experience. I am rereading To Kill a Mockingbird, which I loved as a teenager being required to read it and am loving it even more now. I’m also planning on rereading The Snowstorm, a possibly obscure book from my childhood that I think should be okay, but we’ll have to see! 🙂 I am somewhat morbidly curious about my favorite books from childhood and what I’ll think of them now. A lot of them now I could probably read in just a couple of sittings.

  13. When I reread books that I read at a much younger age, I just feel…underwhelmed. Like, is that all there is to it? I usually see the characters so differently that it makes me upset. So I don’t do a ton of rereading because I am scared of ruining the magic.

  14. I think for me it also depends on what I want out of a reread. There are books I reread specifically because of their simplicity, and the cozy, admittedly somewhat regressive feeling I get from returning to them – Narnia and the Little House books are in this category, along with things like The Little White Horse. (Hell, there are picture books I will reread in the right moods.) They’re books that are associated with really particular good feelings from childhood, and I reread them to reaccess that. The Hobbit’s in that category, too, even though it’s not twee and sugary as many of the others I read to get that feeling. Books that didn’t give me a certain sort of snug internal glow as a kid – even if I really loved the story – don’t work for me like that.

    Other books I reread and connect with differently as an adult, like Austen and Pullman. And some, upon revisiting, turn out to be part of an embarrassing teenage phase best not spoken of. (Yes you, Francesca Lia Block/Laurel K Hamilton/Anne Rice.) I get why I liked them at fourteen, but ack, SO PURPLE.

  15. Heh. As a 14/15/16 yr old, I was FASCINATED by the Jean Auel books, though even then I felt the first book could work just fine as a standalone. I feel that even more now, though I haven’t reread it since maybe early undergrad. Ayla was like Anne Shirley in that first book — spunky, strong-willed, always stood up for what she thought was right, struggled against a very patriarchal society at the same time as she deeply loved her family. And the sign language system totally blew my mind.

    As the series progressed, though, and as I got older, I could see how much of a freakin’ Mary-Sue Ayla was turning into…like, she invents just about everything short of the wheel, and she’s so amazingly selfless, and so drop-dead gorgeous with her blond hair and blue eyes, and srsly she must be the goddess incarnate (no. srsly. her lover — a Gary Stu of epic manly blond-haired-blue-eyed and my oh my is he well hung proportions — literally carves the Venus of Willendorf in Ayla’s image. Aryan idealization, anyone?). And now I really think of it, even the first book idealizes her in contrast with the noble but backwards outdated Neanderthals.

    And good. GRIEF. Does Auel love to show off how much she’s researched. And the characters sure love to expositionize, their dialogue about as natural as that one Luna commercial (“Don’t they come to your house, at your convenience?” 😀 ) — at least in the final book, which I’m still trudging through.

    At least I still have Harry Potter. The only thing so far that has really bugged me is that Harry’s last thought before the Epilogue is whether Kreacher the house elf would make him a sandwich. Y’know, after everything Hermione’s taught him about not just thinking of house elves as servants…and not just treating Kreacher like a thing he inherited from his godfather… But other than that, the series has stood up pretty well to rereadings.

    1. Huh, that’s interesting now you say that about Kreacher. I guess I felt that line was more like a how when I’m sick I just want my mom to bring me chicken soup kind of feeling. But yeah. Minor quibbles aside (and I found I had a few) revisiting HP was wonderful and I legit missed the characters again when I closed the final page.

      1. Yeah, I read it that way, too, at first (i.e. Harry needs some major TLC after everything he’s just been through– and I still think that’s true), but on the second read-through I thought, Wait, why Kreacher? It was just odd that he automatically thought of Kreacher, out of all the other nearby characters who could’ve gotten him a sandwich.

      2. Haha, thanks. The fact that I suddenly found myself identifying with McGonagall was a sure sign to me that I’ve somehow become something resembling an adult.

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