In my house we’ve got an “orphanage lamp.” Almost holy, it’s made of stained glass and turns on with a spin dial attached to the cord. It was bought around the time I was four, and since then my brother and I have known that if anything should happen to that lamp—a bump, a tap, a scratch, a crash—the orphanage is where we would be going. I made sure to read Oliver Twist. I’m twenty-one and still take big, curved steps around the lamp. Maybe it’s the after-effect of a cautious childhood that my reading habits have taken on the same no-touching, no-hovering attitude.
My mother is an English teacher. Each summer I watch as she takes to the beach, the pool, and the La-Z-Boy the same titles she read the summer before.
“Don’t you get sick of reading and teaching the same books?” I ask her.
“No, sometimes we change them and I always find something new I didn’t notice before,” she says. Then she settles back in, her tasseled bookmark between her third and fourth fingers.
There isn’t a rulebook of special circumstances that make it okay for us to take the time to read the same book again.
I am more like my father, a lawyer, who caught me rereading a certain book called The Two Princesses of Bamarre as a fifth grader, and told me there was no reason to read the book again, that I was wasting my time. Sometimes re-reading will feel like that. I’ve got a list taped into the inside of my desk drawer with over a hundred titles waiting to be checked off. My shelves are organized by the books I haven’t read, ones that I’ve started, and ones I have finished. I get my sense of organization from my dad, the need to get a job done. Rereading doesn’t help me check off anything.
But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to re-read. Sometimes I stare at the books that I have already read, doomed to never be touched unless I break out the duster. I try to think to whom I could recommend them just so I get the thrill of skimming over the first few pages again.
There are two conditions I use to allow myself to reread:
1. I have a report or project I need the book for or,
2. The movie version is coming out.
As of now I’ve written four essays on The Hunchback of Notre Dame because it is my favorite book. It’s my favorite book because I’ve given it my time. We are comfortable around each other. The cracked spine and penciled in notes make it less of a collectable, more of a friend. Mom may love her lamp, but she never turns the thing on. Re-reading is taking off the plastic slipcover from couches, breaking porcelain dolls out of their boxes, and playing chopsticks on the antique piano.
There isn’t a rulebook of special circumstances that make it okay for us to take the time to read the same book again. Each time is practice, getting better at sucking in language and getting every bit left that’s in the edges, knowing that the straw you’ve got is too small, the book to chunky to ever get it all.
So what if we look funny slurping? That little exhale of satisfaction we sometimes do after taking a drink? My dad taught me how to do that. That’s what it’s like to read a book again.