Returning to Find the Familiar Somehow Different

Why we should read the best books again and again.

I think the way to read a book is always to see what happens, but in a good novel, more always happens than we are able to take in at once, more happens than meets the eye. – Flannery O’Connor

When you think of your all-time favorite books, what is it that makes them so great? Is it the amazing story? The relatable characters? Or perhaps it’s that they are so thought provoking? There is a good chance that it’s a mixture of all of these attributes, and, maybe, something that you can’t quite put your finger on. For me, my favorite books certainly have all of the above as well as sharing a very important trait: I want to read them again and again. But what is it about those books that bring me back again and again?

catcherLike O’Connor, I believe that the truly great books contain more “than we are able to take in at once,” and that a single reading will only bring out a fraction of what is contained in the text. I’ve certainly found connections and details on a second or third reading of a book that I completely missed the first go around. Sometimes it’s a tiny thing that only subtle shifts the way I read the novel, and others it’s a dramatic point that changes the way I see a character. Perhaps it is an otherwise innocuous bit of dialogue from the final section of 1984 that connects to a bit from the beginning, or a character detail from Catcher in the Rye that has me seeing Holden in a completely different context. Without the repeated readings these are bits of the story that I would have otherwise missed.

It is not possible to step twice into the same river – Heraclitus

See, reading a book is, at heart, a self-examination as much as reading a story. We bring a whole boatload of our own experiences and expectations and dreams and fears into a book. The best books, then, help us examine these emotions, whether that be as a sense of edification or bringing up even more questions than before.  That character detail I mentioned about Holden only has an impact because of how I perceive the character. When I return to a book throughout the years I’m reading about how I’ve changed as much as I’m reading about the characters. When I first read Catcher in the Rye in high school I hated it. Throughout the years, however, I’ve come to a completely different appreciation of the work and the characters. So while the book has remained the same, I’ve certainly changed and my rereading of a text brings all those changes along with it.Orwell-Nineteen-Eighty-Four-large-cover

I see my favorite books as sort of signposts in my life that I can refer back to in order to chart the significant changes that I’ve been through. Using Catcher as an example, I’ve been able to pinpoint some of the reasons why I hated it so much when I was a teenager (I strongly identified with Holden and that freaked me out) and why I have come to love the book and sympathize with Holden as an adult.

The future is inherently unknowable, and we are constantly flying forward, blind to what is coming our way. Really, the only thing that we can rely on to help us see where we’re going is to remember where we’ve been. It’s easy to get disoriented and to feel as if we’re walking down an empty hallway devoid of light. For me, in a small way, each time I return to one of my staple books, I’m reaching out to lightly graze the walls around me, once again touching base with something familiar while remembered how far I’ve come.

I’m planning on highlighting some of my favorite books and the reasons why I’ve returned to them time and time again. I’d love to hear what some of your favorite books are that you’ve read multiple times. What is it about them that brings you back?

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