Or, Surprise! I Actually Like This Book
Some novels can stand up to the pressures of being re-read over and over – Lord of the Rings, Howl’s Moving Castle, Pride and Prejudice – and get better and better each time I read them. To come back to them is like finding a comfortable old friend, to pay more attention to sections I merely skimmed over before, or to open my eyes wider and wider to the genius of the author. Other novels fail this test miserably. Still others that don’t seem all that great on their first reading actually improve once you’ve read them multiple times. I’m not sure why that is. Either sometimes the story benefits because I know exactly what the plot is and where the author is trying to go, or somehow all the little annoyances get less annoying the more I read them. Anyway, here are a couple of novels I’ve experienced this with – which just goes to show that not judging on first impressions extends to more than just not judging a book by its cover!
Emma, by Jane Austen:
You probably think I’m the biggest fan of this book, especially after posting that “missing chapter” on this blog last Saturday. Actually, for the longest time I never understood why so many fans of Austen’s work liked this book so much. Not that I thought it was exactly lesser quality of prose than anything else she wrote, but she seemed to demonstrate rather too well how little went on in the life of a well-bred young lady in that time period – how closed and confined her society really was. All Emma does is drive into town, or visit with her neighbours, or “cheer” her father’s spirits. I had nothing against the general plot, but I thought the author could’ve cut out some long passages of “nothing happens.”
Here is an example of what I mean by a book being better when you know where the author is going. The first read-through you are completely guided by Emma. But all those long passages of “nothing happens” are liberally sprinkled with clues that point exactly to the ending, and you have to be as blind as Emma to miss them. It is a joy to read them over and figure out what they all mean. Frank Churchill is not fixing Mrs. Bates’ spectacles merely out of the goodness of his heart!
I have to admit, it took me at least three read-throughs to appreciate this one, but now it has gone up my hierarchy of Jane Austen’s novels. All I can say is – worth the effort.
Good Wives, by Louisa May Alcott:
This is the sequel to Little Women, and is in fact packaged in the same volume as Little Women in most editions. I actually read it long after I read Little Women, and thought it far weaker than Little Women, Little Men, or Jo’s Boys. Again, it took me three times reading it to appreciate it on its own.
*Spoilers ahead* Surprisingly, it was not the much complained about fact that Jo does not marry Laurie that bugged me about this book. I don’t really mind that Laurie marries Amy instead. I never saw it coming, but I find their relationship relatively sensible. Professor Bhaer came way out of left field though, and I could not see him as a romantic interest (in fact, I still see him as a better husband and father than a romantic interest – not all good husbands make good heroes of romance novels, remember that!) And I had no idea why Jo went off with him to start a school, since to my younger self “starting a school” was unheard of – all schools I knew were institutions and not run by random individuals. In fact, probably most of my displeasure with the book came from reading Little Women when I was so much younger – I accepted Jo and Laurie as just good friends, and Jo as rather motherly towards him, and to see them hurting each other as a result of misplaced romance was just weird. And Beth dies, when the high point of Little Women is that she lives after her illness. And so on. I had to get over my preconceptions to fully enjoy it. And once I did, my opinion of it rose.
Two examples are probably enough for now. There’s plenty more books I have NOT been able to get into, despite the number of times I re-read them (I could never get into Emily of New Moon, despite loving the Anne of Green Gables series). Who knows, maybe I just have to re-read them a few more times.
What about you? What are your favourite books to re-read, and has re-reading a book ever changed your mind about it?
This post comes to you on Friday, not Thursday, which I think will become the regular schedule for this semester. Class-wise, it works much better for the next couple months.
9 responses to “The Pleasures of Re-Reading”
I see what you mean about Good Wives, the difference being that there’s only one edition of this sequel (and the two others) in french so I never got a chance to read it when I was a kid. When I finally got my hands on it, I remember not liking it, because of Beth’s death and mostly because I had read Little Women (here’s the french title : Les quatre filles du Dr March – Dr March’s four daughters, which is stupid cause he’s not even a doctor) so many times growing up that I didn’t want them to grow up and have children – and be apart. I didn’t like Little Men, or Jo’s Boys either the first time I read them. But recently I had to re-buy Little Women (after finding out that those stupid french editors removed entire chapters from the traduction – the beginning, for example, and the chapter about Dicken’s book) so I bought the only translation with nothing of the original text missing and I read it again. And then, I decided to re-read the sequels too, and I loved them this time. I’m not sure why, but I guess I came to terms with the fact that they grew up.
Also, Lord of the Rings, Howl’s Moving Castle, Pride and Prejudice – what about Harry Potter ? Everytime I re-read it (which happens a lot more often than I care to admit) I discover details that I missed and I love the series even more !
I have to admit, I loved Harry Potter when I first started reading them as a kid, but my love for them has decreased as the years go by. That’s why I can’t include them on this list… but I know a lot of people would.
Dr. March??? No, I don’t understand that translation either.
Ahah, yes, Dr. March ! My guess is, when it was first translated, most kids didn’t know what a minister was. So he became a doctor. We’ll never know why they didn’t just take the exact translation of Little Women : Petites femmes. Too simple, probably…
I do have some favorites too that I enjoy re-reading. For me, the most important book I re-read is The Bible. I can never get all the nuances and what the Lord is saying in one sitting. Each time I read it, something knew becomes evident to me. I think that is why it is called a Living Book.
I also have enjoyed reading and re-reading Pilgrim’s Progress. Now there is something that will make you think as you read it. Robinson Crusoe also fits this category as you look at the allegory built within the story itself.
In terms of modern novels, I love Patricia Cornwall’s books and mysteries. I think I have read them all and re-read several because I like her character development.
A good book is worth our time to re-read it….like having a juicy morsel of food all over again! Thanks for your insights my friend.
Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe are both books I read a very long time ago, and could actually read again. Thanks for reminding me of them. 🙂 And the Bible is certainly meant to be read over and over again…
Hmm I actually haven’t read either of those books! I find my attention span (and that I have a constantly growing pile of books to read) doesn’t lend me much time to re-read books.. However, I have re-read the Harry Potter series a few times and you’re right – with the right book(s), it makes it even better!
So many books, so little time… I know the feeling. 🙂
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