The wonder of rereading
There may be more to learn from climbing the same mountain a hundred times than by climbing a hundred different mountains.
—Richard Nelson, The Island Within (Penguin Random House, 1991)
In like manner, there may be more to learn from reading the same book a hundred times than by reading a hundred different books.
After all, we read the Psalms a hundred times and the Gospels, as well. What is to be learned is the heart of Christ at the heart of the story. We may also discover people different from us and yet, remarkably similar. Words that at one time went unnoticed leap off the page the second or third time around. The words have not changed, but we have.
Winter is a perfect time to reread. There was no autumn in my part of the country. Leaves were still full on trees when snow came barreling in, a foot at a time. There was a white fur piece around each house — if you're a romantic —a heap of shoveling if you're a realist.
In either case, it's a good time to settle in with a favorite book or two. Take it from the poet Mary Oliver. Here is what she is doing with her one wild and precious life — "I want to spend what time I have left rereading masterpieces."
In this spirit, I began rereading Tolstoy's masterpiece. I would know Anna Karenina anywhere. Every time our nearby train sounds, I am transported to the Russian station where her story began and ended. In between, I have come to know Anna well and her lover, Vronsky, better.
Initially, I thought he was callous and uncaring. A first impression. As I reread, I saw he was a complicated man, not without honor. Just as in any meeting, first impressions are not always true ones. And so we read again and come to know these people better. And maybe the people close to us better.
Sometimes it is not the character, but the author we come to know, the shadow behind the work. One day I actually met Annie Dillard, whose works I read again every two or three years.
A friend and I happened to be driving a few miles near the Dillard home in Connecticut. On a whim, we found her house and knocked on the door. Sure enough — Annie Dillard. I introduced myself, shook her hand, posed for a photo, and we said goodbye. That was it, perhaps five minutes.
But I have come to know Dillard in her books. I have walked with her at Tinker Creek, shared An American Childhood, and taught the title piece of Teaching a Stone to Talk. Recently, I began rereading that book.
As if for the first time, I met the 7-year-old Annie whose parents thought it would be high fun to have Santa Claus appear at their door. Annie ran. Was this the same Annie I had met in her grownup doorway? Yes, it was. But Santa Claus was really her neighbor, Miss White, somehow reconfigured as God, and Annie ran away from this awful trinity.
And she is still running, she says, from love incarnate. And so, I see, am I, which is enough to make me put the book down in wonder. Sometimes we reread and discover ourselves.
This was the case with Hepzibah Pyncheon in her house of seven gables. She has such a scowl engraved in her face that she puts everyone off, including the reader. Better to turn to her joyful niece, Phoebe. On re-reading, however, I saw beyond the scowl into Hepzibah's sensitive heart. One day in a department store, I was so intent on finding a jacket that when I caught my face in the nearby mirror, I was startled. It was Hepzibah, scowl and all.
After he finished writing Madame Bovary, Flaubert looked at his main character and said, "C'est moi." "It is me." It was after rereading that I looked at Hepzibah Pyncheon and said the same thing, C'est moi.
I saw Annie Dillard running from God and said, It's me running. On the umpteenth reading of Scripture, I finally saw the words: God has a flask with all of our tears. Maybe I had to shed a few before I heard God's tender, personal care expressed in such a touching way.
To be sure, not all rereading is magical. Recently I read Little Women again and it seemed "preachy." This is not to deny that it was once magic. When I was 12, I joined my girl cousins in their attic bedroom where we dressed up like little women and reenacted their lives. Later, snug in our beds, we dreamed ourselves into the characters' lives.
Now the winter sun lowers over the sleeping cousins and Tinker Creek, over the house of seven gables, the train station and the snowy maple in our backyard. "Day, tired as it is, lags away reluctantly, hates to be called yesterday" (from The House of the Seven Gables).
I seize the remains of the day and continue climbing the same mountain of books. First, it's Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, more descriptive of our dark times than when I first read it. Next, it's Kathryn Harrison's Joan of Arc. A Life Transfigured. This time I start with the final chapter, "Life Everlasting," a reminder of what lies beyond every mountain. And Who.
[Joan Sauro, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, publishes widely in the Catholic press. "We were called Sister" (U.S. Catholic) was awarded first place for Best Essay 2014 by the Catholic Press Association.]