Why re-read? Why, when there are so many books out there, would anyone want to go through what they already know? Is there not something timid and unadventurous about sticking to what one knows rather than exploring what is new? Does this not prevent one from widening one’s horizons? The very sound of the word “re-read” has about it a stuttering sense of repetition, of redundancy.
And yet, some of the most enthralling literary experiences I have had of late have been from re-readings. I don’t mean the “comfort re-reads” – Treasure Island, the Sherlock Holmes stories, the ghost stories of M. R. James – all those wonderful fictional worlds I enjoy revisiting because they are so enticing in their different ways. It’s not that revisiting these works give me new insights into them: but re-reading these works provides the sort of pleasure we get when we hear again our favourite tunes.
But there is another kind of book that demands re-reading – books where a single reading is no more than dipping one’s toes into the water. These are works where a mere view of the surface is not sufficient, given that so much of its substance lies hidden deep below. These are works not to be read once and put aside, but, rather, to be constantly revisited, to be lived with.
Admittedly, such books are exceptions rather than the rule: but there are more than enough of such books to last a lifetime. Indeed, there are so many such books, that choices must be made: just as one cannot read everything that is worth reading, neither can one live with everything that is worth living with. But still, to get to know a few great works well seems to me, on balance, time better spent than racing through as many different works as one can in search of ever-new experiences.
In the last few weeks of last year, I read The Brothers Karamazov for the third time. That in itself is rather strange, as I am by no means a fully paid up Dostoyevskian: Dostoyevsky troubles me for a variety of reasons – but then again, one may expect serious literature to be troubling. Now, I want to embark on another major re-read of another vast, visionary work that is deeply flawed and deeply troubling: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. I last read it, I think, some thirty years ago, and, while I sensed its power, I don’t think I took in much more than what I saw on the surface. Now, I think, it is high time for me too dive in, to look, as Melville himself did, beyond that surface. For if what I sensed so vaguely on my first reading is correct, this is another of those books that needs to be lived with: a mere single reading cannot be anywhere near sufficient.