Why Do We Re-Read Our Favorite Books as Kids, and Why Do We Stop When We Get Older?

As an avid young reader, I tore through every Nancy Drew book — both the originals and the cheap paperback updates — twice, experiencing my favorites up to five or six times. Even more sacred was my semi-annual ritual of re-experiencing all of L.M. Montgomery’s major novels, including the entire eight-book Anne of Green Gables series, alternating with my personal favorite, Emily of New Moon, and its two sequels. For weeks I would go back to Prince Edward Island and dwell with those characters. This journey was supplemented by a solemn re-reading of The Lord of the Rings every four or five years, an experience so intense that my dreams would begin to look like Peter Jackson’s set designs, even before those designs existed. As I got older, I switched out some of these childhood classics for adult ones, going back through the “Austen six” again and again, while also making a point of re-watching my favorite Austen miniseries and the Lord of the Rings films in marathon fashion.

Yet the last Austen novel I re-read was in early 2010 — two apartments, three jobs, and five years ago. Until this week, I hadn’t sat down and re-read a favorite book for pleasure since, and my re-watching had slowed to a trickle, too. I have given up a treasured part of my cultural life, a staple since I was in elementary school. So why did I stop? And what have I lost?

The answer to the first question is complicated. The obvious, superficial, answer is time and priorities. Those re-reading binges of childhood and even college were enabled by long summers, school vacations, family trips. And they offered a pleasant reprieve from the stresses of class-required reading and writing, a chance to reclaim those activities for myself. Now, almost all the reading I do is for a different homework — the social kind. Even popular series like The Hunger Games and the Sookie Stackhouse series make my reading list at least partly to keep me “up on the conversation.” I walk around with a stack of books I “need” to read, as well as a full Instapaper queue and a stream of essays, articles, and stories by friends that I genuinely want to read to help them evaluate and offer support.

And when I am reading for pleasure, I’m often tearing through new books, hoping to find “the one” that will remind me of reading a Montgomery book or an Austen book, and coming up short (well, with the lone recent exception of Ferrante).

I’ve come to understand that I’ll rarely experience that first rush of discovery again, and perhaps that’s the problem with re-reading. It reminds us both of where we’ve been and where we can’t go again. Once, when I was in elementary school, I sat on my carpet and grabbed Little House on the Prairie, looking forward to an indulgent re-read. But I couldn’t do it — it was too clearly written for children, too simple. It no longer had the power it once had to pull me into its world.

That feeling explains the trepidation that accompanied my downloading Emily of New Moon onto my Nook this week. It’s a sophisticated children’s book, sophisticated because it’s thematically preoccupied with the question that brought me to its pages. In fact, its heroine regularly reconsiders her own poetry and diary entries and burns them, seeing them as trash, when months ago she thought they were resplendent. It never stops. Emily spends most of the book writing out her frustrations in letters to her dead father, “But when she again tried to write a letter to her father she found that it no longer meant anything to her…. A certain door of life was shut behind her and could not be reopened.”

Re-reading Emily itself provides that reminder of doors that have been shut behind me. The book once seemed dense, and now it seems light. But it also gave me insights I didn’t expect. As Nabokov famously said,

The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.

A re-read allows us to fly over the pages and absorb more of the secondary meaning of the book, rather than just its initial plot, characters, structures. But it also means a suspension of our willing disbelief, an understanding that what we’re seeing is a false creation. Anyone who has seen his or her favorite band in concert multiple times on the same tour might recognize such a feeling. The first show you’re too euphoric to hear anything but the music and see anything but the showmanship; the second show you start to notice the choreography of certain moments, the little things the roadies are doing to make the show seem effortless, the way the singer sounds strained. You know a bit more about the band’s way of working and being, but the curtain of magic has been lifted.

This time while reading Emily of New Moon, I recognized every single minor character, every event, and relished re-encountering them. Yet something changed, too: I found myself thinking less about the novel’s heroine, while being more and more curious about the novel’s author, about both the idealism and bitterness she put onto the page, how she accomplished her tone, and what her emotional and literary sources were. In other words, I saw Emily more as a crafted construction than as I used to see her, which was as a friend and spirit guide.

But that doesn’t mean the book lost its healing or inspirational power for me; rather, that power’s locus had changed. The power came not from the story itself, but from the writer’s ability to create such a singular and charming heroine, down to details like Emily’s high forehead and overactive imagination. Similarly, when I get teary at the end of Pride and Prejudice after four or five reads, it’s not because Lizzy is so amazing or because she and Darcy are finally together — in fact, I see her faults quite clearly now. Instead it’s because I’m amazed that Jane Austen created them, moved them around, and made me still care, even if I see the strings being pulled.

Re-reading offers something that few other cultural experiences do, really: a mix of gentle stability and sharp new insight. In childhood, “as we become accustomed to a world in which change is the only real constant, the familiarity of the book at bedtime is something to cling to. Adults aren’t immune to those feelings, either,” Hephzibah Anderson wrote last year. “Except that often, that’s not quite the case. We notice fresh details. Our interpretations change as we evolve.”

Throughout My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead writes about how with each read of her favorite book, her character identifications and sympathies change. Indeed, re-reading means constantly assessing one’s own growth and loss of previous innocence, which can be spiritually gratifying but also painful. But that mix of ease with struggle, of nestling into the familiar while learning hard truths, is the core of any kind of spiritually infused practice, whether it’s meditation or a creative pursuit.

Taking the time to re-experience the art we loved best in our past can be a way of spending time with ourselves, and though its rewards are mostly unseen, that may make them all the more important to seek out. Now that I’m done with the first Emily book, I plan to re-read the whole series, and try to work my favorite books back into my life, without being afraid of losing “productive” time.