This year, my 10-year-old daughter finished the Harry Potter series. By book seven, the act of reading became climactic: binge events, reckless late nights. When it was over, she spent a day or two in a state of dazed recovery before picking up the first book again—only to return from school deflated when a teacher encouraged her “to try something new instead.” I was fascinated. I teach fiction writing to graduate students, and the entire pursuit is awash in rereading. Naturally we reread their own work as a function of revision, but we also go back to published work, scurrying through pages to find a deft bit of dialogue. We map novels to understand their structure. We dive back into short stories to explore their miracles of compression. We pay close attention to the first sentences to see how writers begin to create what Eudora Welty called “a chink-proof world.” If all this sounds utilitarian, try to imagine the joy with which we reread our favorite passages, simply to marvel at what is possible.
This joy, this chance to marvel—these are among the pleasures I hope my children experience as readers. You don’t have to be in a writing seminar to enjoy the music of a well-turned phrase, as any kid with a favorite nursery rhyme knows. By the time I was my daughter’s age, my sister, my brother and I endured long drives by passing books back and forth, including a supply of British titles from my mother’s childhood in India. We read them again and again to absorb, if not understand, intriguing foreign allusions, with inside jokes derived largely from Wodehouse references to lemon-colored pajamas or Annotated Whiffle: The Care of the Pig. We even reread mysteries, a colossal waste of time by all intelligent standards—although years later, when my sister published an appreciation of Agatha Christie, I felt a glow of affirmation: perhaps there had been a point after all.
On the strength of such memories, I resorted to my sister’s Twitter account to cheer my daughter. “Obsessive rereader,” she read aloud from her aunt’s bio, and looked up with a secret tribal smile. Her return to Hogwarts was jubilant. She found her second read “so much better,” because she didn’t have to worry what would happen. She was attuned to small details that grew to immense significance over the arc of the series. She was interested in the finer points of world-building.
For months, I’ve been reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. I’ve never read anything so slowly in my life—in part because it’s so delightful that I’d rather it not end, and in part because I’ve stopped at intervals to reread all of Fitzgerald’s novels. It is a curiously intimate exercise, revisiting her books alongside notes about her research and intentions, the circumstances of her own life, even alternate endings. I will never meet Fitzgerald, although I imagine she’d have enjoyed going to library sales with me and my Aunt Helen, buying books other people have only needed to read once. But I am an old friend of her books. The novels reveal themselves differently with each reading, and I become aware of changes in myself—differences in my concerns, in what moves or unsettles me—every time I return to them.
Rereadings are also the genesis of vital new work. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea confronts and expands Jane Eyre. Peter Carey reconsiders Great Expectations in his spry Jack Maggs. Caryl Phillips gives new life to a girl quite like Anne Frank—and to a beautifully imagined Othello—in The Nature of Blood. The books we revisit may have something more to say to us; perhaps the books we cannot leave behind begin to show us what we have to say to the world.
My daughter is not thinking about any of that. Her Potter stats are not unusual; she has read the series
a few times, collecting data about the magical world the way other kids collect baseball cards. She reads “new” books too. Lately she has found my childhood copies of Streatfeild’s Shoes series. Paging through them to talk with her is an unexpectedly sweet way of rereading.
But she never finishes the last Harry Potter book without returning to the first. This impulse has nothing to do with details or plot. She goes back because she has learned what nothing but books can teach her: to love the people in them, to feel their lives are connected to her own. By the end of the series, characters she cares for have been hurt or killed. Characters she loves must mourn them. She has not read Eliot, but books have taught her how it feels to “die with the dying.” So she returns to the beginning the way any of us might choose to run the clock backward, to revisit a time before we knew certain inescapable truths or terrible losses. She puts down one volume, picks up another, and suddenly people are young again, the dead resurrected, the workaday world full of magic. It’s all still ahead of them.
Jones is the author of a story collection, What You Call Winter. A recipient of an NEA fellowship, Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Prize, she is at work on a novel.