None of this was in my mind when I recently reread Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor, more for a break than any noble reason. I remembered it as a story about a drunk whose body is found, told in a slightly unnerving first-person plural, with the official procedures forming the spine around which we learn about his life and his mistakes.
I wasn’t entirely wrong, but much more so than I was expecting. The main characters are in fact his friends, who I had thought were far less central, while the procedures – the autopsy and the inquest in particular – had much less of a pivotal role. What didn’t change were my overall feelings about the book and its bare, respectful treatment of its subjects, but now they were more detailed, more nuanced, and better-informed.
Of course, rereading lacks the shocking joy of complete discovery of a character, a plot, a mood. It also carries the risk that a favourite book just won’t stand up to any further scrutiny (I can’t bring myself to pull The Remains of the Day from my shelf again in case I tarnish my memory of it).
But it does have benefits. Reading for the first time can feel like being in a blizzard, with the result being that you’re unsure of precisely what’s happened when you finish beyond a vague miasma of feeling. And it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the plot that it’s difficult to step back and work out your thoughts about it. Rereading, by contrast, lets you savour the writing, the technique, without the rush to the end. It’s not dissimilar to walking along a new route: it might seem neverending and bewildering at first, but the second time it’s familiar enough to enjoy it (and to continue the analogy, gets really boring if you do it repeatedly).
Ultimately, if reading is supposed to be for pleasure, then we should all reread more. The satisfaction is deeper, even if the thrill is a little less. Sorry Brideshead, but you’re going to have to wait.
From about three quarters of the way through any book, I’m cheating on it. I might still be following the plot and engaging with the characters, but I’ve inevitably got one eye on my shelves, the piles of books on my floor, and my Amazon wishlist, trying to decide what I’ll be reading next.
Along with this prematurely wandering gaze come questions: should I finally give Portnoy’s Complaint a go? Is it time for another crack at Blood Meridian? Or I could lucky-dip from this year’s Booker Prize shortlist. It’s around this time, incidentally, that a vague sense of panic descends, and I realise that I’ll never complete reading.
What rarely enters my mind amid all this is to return to something. My shelves are mostly filled with books I’ve previously read – but they’re not the ones that catch my attention. And in a world so obsessed with the new, that’s maybe no surprise. The entire publishing industry is based on convincing us to try something different – whether that’s the latest bestseller or delving into a classic for the first time – rather than opening one of those books sat sadly on the shelf, its pages turned once then left to gather dust.
And then there’s the sheer, daunting, mass of material out there, the vast ocean of existing titles and the constant tsunami of new ones, all bolstering the idea that rereading is some sort of indulgence. We’re hardly short of recommendations either, from friends, family, reviewers, prize shortlists, or Amazon Recommends. Choosing to reread, on the other hand, is taking your own recommendation and that just feels, well, like a bit of a cop-out.
With so many new books to choose from, I doubt I’m alone in rarely rereading. Books are finished, closed, back on the shelf, ticked off the list and rated on GoodReads. It’s a little unromantic, a touch mechanical perhaps, but it’s the only way to make any progress, dammit. Rereading feels something of a comfort, a guilty pleasure – and only makes me more keenly aware of that unread copy of Brideshead Revisited, borrowed from parents in a blaze of self-improvement, eyeing me reproachfully.
But it would be wrong to think of rereading as just an exercise in the enjoyment of familiarity. Memory, as any unreliable narrator can attest, distorts, refracts, and obscures; on a second reading remarks and scenes take on a new significance, characters shed and gain traits, themes emerge startlingly, like hidden images in a painting. It’s arguably only when reading for a second, third, or fourth time that a novel’s ‘full’ meaning is revealed – authors take months, years to complete their work, so is it realistic for us to think we can grasp it in its entirety in one take, in a few hours snatched before bed over the course of a fortnight?
 Jamie Thunder
Vhcle Books, Issue 15
Rereading life design music photography home us film art fashion global notes archive books
Marc Ingber – Disrespecting the Life Cycle - When Pop Culture Comes Back From the Dead
Tim Sunderman – The Real Zombie Survival Guide
Jamie Thunder – The Quiet American
Emma Davies – The Goldfinch
Myles Lawrence-Briggs – Johnny Get the Hatchet
Vhcle Man – Benjamin Schwartz
Andy Denzler
Suhita Shirodkar
Jamie Thunder is Vhcle's books editor, and he works, reads and writes in the South of England. When he's not doing any of these he runs long distances, and is always very relieved when he's got to the end.
Read other articles by Jamie Thunder
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