Finding Pleasure in Re-Reading
“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were.”
So opens Margaret Mitchell’s classic Gone with the Wind, the Pulitzer-winning novel from 1936. For millions of fans everywhere, this line reveals a world that is far from reality but wholly pleasurable. The story neatly ties together heartache and lost dreams with persistence and tangled passion. Every element of human drama is perfectly in place.
But Gone with the Wind is not the only tale that enthralls readers. Stories in all languages concerning all subjects accomplish this same task every day. The sheer number of books on the market makes it hard to get to most of them. This task is further complicated by devoting time to reading again and again the same book or books. Although re-reading keeps us from exploring other stories, it’s hard to give attention to a new novel when you really want the comfort that comes with the cozy familiarity of an old favorite.
It would seem re-reading is… redundant. You already know the story’s plot. The book’s theme and common feel have been revealed. Even the characters are familiar; their actions don’t change with the second or third reading, and they always take the same path that leads to the same conclusion.
Why exactly is re-reading so pleasurable?
Old Friends and Familiar Tales
Perhaps the answer is in the characters. These larger-than-life figures become family members whose stories we take as our own. Sometimes we relate to the characters, but always we connect on some level. This connection is intimate, a relationship that refuses to end, even when you put down the book. In re-reading, the relationship is kindled over and over without end.
But the characters need at least skeletal compositions to form shapes in your head. Into this equation comes the story itself, which must be compelling to hold your attention. The first read of a good book brings anticipation. You turn the pages quickly, hands trembling to see what happens next, whereas the second or third read evokes nothing more than quiet pleasure. The scenes are already known, yet they unfold word by word as if for the first time. This is not unlike visiting an old friend or beloved family member whose company remains unspoiled by familiarity.
Finding pleasure in a book doesn’t happen by magic. You might even say reading is a complex activity perfected by practice. Understanding words and sentences is simple enough, but the true reading experience compels imagination. You watch the events unfold according to your own vision. You also breathe life into the characters by seeing their faces and hearing their voices. You feel their emotions, eat what they eat, and hear what they hear. You are as tangled in the story as they are.
As a result of these encounters, you like some characters and dislike others. You also develop thoughts and feelings about the book until you are fused with its general tapestry. Perhaps it is this fusion that draws us back to favorite stories; we want to receive over and over the gifts of imagination a story imparts to us.
Whether you read a book once and move on or re-read the same novel until its pages are ragged, one thing is clear: Books give us a different view of the world. Compelling characters relieve the mundane and invite us into their lives with neither prejudice nor hesitation. Whether their stories are adventures, dramas, sagas, romances, or mysteries, they make the impossible seem possible. Feeling this sort of hope is as gratifying as the books that beckon us until we can’t resist opening their covers and finding what’s inside.