When I was 18, I became friends with a writer who was in his early 30s, and I asked him one day what he was reading. “Actually,” he said, “I’ve gotten to the stage where I’ve started re-reading.” Oh, dear, I thought, I guess he’s run out of books. I felt a little sorry for him, and also alarmed by the notion that maybe there were only enough good books in the world to occupy me for another dozen years or so. Was my friend hinting that there comes a point when we’re all stuck with reruns?
Now, more than three decades later, I know what he meant. You never run out of good books, but as much fun as it is to discover something new, one of life’s great joys is re-reading: going back to a book for the second or third or fifth time, and seeing how it has deepened and expanded since your last visit.
The first time you read “Great Expectations,” you read for plot. What is going to happen next? Who is Pip’s mysterious benefactor? Will Estella, the cold-hearted girl he loves, ever soften enough to marry him? How will Dickens weave the many threads together, and what will the carpet look like when he is finished? The second time you read it, you’ve already seen the overall pattern of the carpet. You understand that this is a novel about self-delusion. You are aware of Pip’s flaws as a narrator. You can trust him to tell you what happens, but not when he tries to tell you what it all means. You understand that this is a book about getting things wrong — and that in describing so precisely how we get things wrong, Dickens gets it exactly right.
The first time you read “Ethan Frome,” you’re bored. You’re probably 15, and reading the novel in a high-school English class. The teacher assigned it because it was short. Snow, ice, and a bunch of crabby New Englanders who don’t talk much. To make things worse, it starts with a scene between characters who turn out not to matter, which makes you want to throw the book out the window (the same window through which you’ll want to toss “Madame Bovary,” “Wuthering Heights,” and “My Antonia”).
But if you pick up “Ethan Frome” again 20 years later, you’ll be amazed at how much passion and compassion Edith Wharton was able to pack between the lines of that spare book. Its form perfectly matches its subject; it’s a taciturn novel about taciturn people, about deep feelings that can’t be put into words. It becomes a different book upon re-reading, once you’ve lived enough to understand the things that can’t be said. As the narrator says in the first chapter before he disappears from the book, “The deeper meaning of the story was in the gaps.”
The first time you read “Middlemarch,” most likely in college, you think it’s a book about other people. You would never steer your life in the wrong direction, like George Eliot’s sympathetic but misguided characters: Dorothea, who marries a man she thinks is a genius only to learn he’s a selfish, suspicious, shriveled-up pedant; Lydgate, the idealistic young doctor who falls for a narcissistic airhead; Fred, who keeps throwing money around even though the girl he desperately loves will marry him only if he stops throwing money around. They all start out with dreams and ambitions; life disappoints them and they disappoint themselves. Poor fools, you think.
When you read the book again — say in your 30s — you have a somewhat sickening fear that it’s a book about you. You haven’t made the same mistakes as George Eliot’s characters, but you’ve made different mistakes. You’ve had your own disappointments. Career plans that didn’t work out. Romantic missteps. Secrets you’ve kept, with disastrous results; secrets blurted out, equally disastrous. You’re still here, but you’re humbler, less lustrous. In short, you’ve lived.
And the more you go on living, the more prepared you will be to re-read “Middlemarch” yet again. This time you will realize that it isn’t a book about other people and it isn’t a book about you. It’s about all of us. In fact, it’s the broadest, most dimensional, most dispassionate, and most loving human panorama ever written. I reread it about a year ago, with a 77-year-old friend who was also re-reading. Almost every morning we would call each other to gossip about the inhabitants of Middlemarch, what they were up to and why. George Eliot’s town had become our town.
Re-reading never gets old. The books change because we change. The great books get greater as we understand them better: reading them over and over, and knowing that we will never be finished.