Rereading Favorite Books

An under-considered approach to insight and pleasure

Posted Jan 14, 2021

Vectors Market, Noun Project. CC0
Source: Vectors Market, Noun Project. CC0

We’re amazed that kids want to read the same book again and again. But on reflection, that makes sense: With each reread, they’re not only getting to again enjoy a favorite book, but new things are revealed. Some are mere subtleties, others could be major.

As with many ideas, repetition is required before a book's wisdom sinks in enough to motivate action. An axiom in the advertising industry is that it takes six to nine exposures just to get someone to change their brand of toilet paper.

A decade ago, I invited seven people that I respect to become a board of advisors. We meet monthly for an hour by teleconference. Mainly, members bring up a problem on which they'd like the board's input. But time permitting, I ask the group an evocative question. Today, it was, “What book would you’d most want to reread?"

I would have expected the list of books to be mainly new ones — the recency effect that we see when polls ask, "Who is the greatest person of all time?" Such lists are overrepresented by current or recent politicians. Yet only one of the nominations for rereading were written in the 21st century. The others have stood the test of time.

Here they are:

How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything.  The board member, an esteemed psychotherapist said, "This book changed not only how I do therapy but changed my life.”

The Story of My Experiment With Truth. This is Gandhi's autobiography. The board member said,  "This is the book that has most informed my spiritual side."

Wide Sargasso Sea. This novel describes what made the madwoman in Jane Eyre's attic. My board member said, "We don't really understand why people do what they do. This book helped me to do so."

The Changing World Order. The board member described this just-published book as "a brilliant guide to, not just how the world is changing, but why."

Pop songs. Rather than propose a book, one member said he most enjoys revisiting songs whose lyric was transformative for him. He offered an example: the theme song from the movie, Flashdance. It included the line, "Take your passion and make it happen."  His response comports with my clients' experience: Something very brief like a rhyming slogan can have more impact than a tome.

The Adventures of Augie March (my pick) It’s my favorite coming-of-age novel, a smarter version of Catcher in the Rye, revealing what goes through the mind and heart of an intelligent but flawed person as he becomes an adult. For example, here's how he described his straightforward boss: “He didn’t have the long-distance burrowing vices of people who took you in with mildness and turned out to be digging and tunneling all the while.”

The takeaway

Now, of course, comes the core question, the purpose of the foregoing: What do you want to reread?

If you're having difficulty remembering your past favorites, one or more of these might help:

  • Peruse your bookshelves and/or e-reader such as Kindle
  • Google-search "best books" "or "best books of all time."
  • Review your library withdrawals
  • Review your purchase history on Amazon or wherever you mainly buy books.

When you reread, of course, savor your previous favorite parts. But also note what you enjoy and learn that you hadn’t from your first reading.

I read this aloud on YouTube.