Monday, September 14, 2015

On the Rereading of Books

I recently found my eleven year old son on his bed after his exhausting day of painting and yard work.

"What are you up to?" I asked.


Surprised, because reading is not usually his choice for relaxing, I curiously asked, "What book?"

"The Kid Who Only Hit Homers."

Just in time I restrained myself from commenting. He's read it before--many, many times. For some reason, perhaps because it is the first chapter book he read independently a couple of years ago, he's
fond of that one. Undoubtedly he will grow to have other favorites, but I have a hunch that Matt Christopher will be tucked into his box of boyhood treasures and accompany him when he leaves home someday.

I had to chuckle at myself a bit when I was writing down the titles of a few books I've finished lately. Looking back over the list, I had put a star next to those I had read before. There were a fair number of them.

This is why I began pondering about the reasons we reread books. Sometimes, like my son, I reread books just because they are like revisiting close friends. It is also always delightful to find details in them I had missed. Especially when reading aloud to my children books I've read long ago, I am amazed at how differently I understand them than I did the first time. Often I find even more pleasure in them than I did back then, similar to hearing an old song you once loved and feeling the memories and emotions associated with them that flood back. When I reread books my book club members are reading for the first time, I feel like you do when two friends you know finally get to meet each other.

At the CMI conference last spring, Jerram Barrs mentioned books he rereads every year: all of Jane Austen, The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia Chronicles--to name a few. At the time, I thought this a fine example of classics, the books worth reading again and again because they never cease to feed us and inspire us. Some books, after all, enter into us and take up permanent residence, touch our emotions, affect our thinking, alter our decisions, change our outlook on the world and the people in it. They indelibly mark our memories and we cannot imagine having lived without their thoughts.

Some books have helped me to grow up, led me a little further up and further in, while others I have had to grow up in order to appreciate, merely shaking hands and glimpsing at a first reading a trickle of the rivers of knowledge and beauty they contain.

Then I realized that this is yet again an answer to the question I am asked at least weekly: What is a living book?

It is a book you are glad you read, but even more, want to read again--and again. Living books are those that teach and which you instinctively know will teach you again, that bring a satisfying pleasure you cannot resist repeating. Books take possession of you and you then own them inside you forever. It's no wonder I've reread so many every year, and am not only unapologetic for doing so, but am deeply grateful to have the privilege of rereading them.

What are the books you return to again and again? Here are some of mine I have reread since January:

Parents and Children by Charlotte Mason
School Education by Charlotte Mason
Ourselves by Charlotte Mason
On the Formation of Character by Charlotte Mason
Toward a Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason
Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McIntyre
The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare
Gettysburg by MacKinlay Kantor
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White
The Pony Express by Samuel Adams
Daisy Miller by Henry James
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien
Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories by Washington Irving
Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers

For the joy of reading,



  1. That is such a great "rule of thumb" if you will on living literature! The rereading test. :) I'm sure we won't reread ALL the beautiful books that we read in our life, but I've started rereading things that I love in the past few years also! I've read Pilgrim's Inn for the third time this year and I'm slowly making my way through Jane Austen's. I finished Pride & Prejudice, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey. I'm now in Mansfield Park. :) I'm also rereading For the Family's sake for the third time. :) And of course, the Bible. :) Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Amy, you are reading some great books. I actually have been reading
    Pride and Prejudice with my 16-year-old son and he is thoroughly
    enjoying it. You will be surprised how many times you actually do
    return to the "beautiful" books you have read.


  3. Oh yay! A chance to exchange book lists!
    In the past few months I've reread:
    Persuasion by Jane Austen
    Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery
    Carry On Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
    Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
    The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson
    Catherine Called Birdy and The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman

    The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; The Silver Chair; The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

    a fair number of Hopkins' poems and Shakespeare's sonnets
    parts of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers by Benedicta Ward

    I am currently rereading the Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge.

    I love rereading books. Some of these books on this list I've read close to a dozen times. Many of them I've read at least three times. I reread them for so many reasons, but partly because after a truly excellent book, I feel both enlarged and diminished. Enlarged because I've lived another life. Diminished because I have to return to my own and part of me is still in the book. I think I reread books to find the part of me that I left inside it. Also, to re-experience the joy and wonder of the book.

    Thanks for helping me to see that the desire to reread a book is a pretty good testimony to its being a living book. Thanks, too, for all your wonderful book recommendations. You don't know how many wonderful books I've read because of your blog here :) So so grateful!

    1. Kimberlee, Fellow Rereader,

      I delighted in your saying you reread books to find the part of you you left inside them. We not only strengthen our connection with the book and its author, but with ourselves when we reread.

      And Scent of Water is my all-time favorite Goudge novel, in the top favorites of all books I've ever read.

      Thanks for sharing not only the titles, but yourself.