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Why Do We Reread Novels?

It has to do with the importance of mental imagery while reading.

Key points

  • The mental imagery reading conjures up can be very different on two different occasions.
  • The more vivid the reader’s mental imagery, the more likely information from the novel is imported into the reader’s real-world beliefs.
  • Names may trigger more specific or more determinate mental imagery than words.
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So far, 130,000,000 books have been published. 130 million books. And, each year, about a million books are added to that. That's a lot of books. And even those who read a lot and read fast (and who live long) could read no more than about 6,000 books in their life. Do the maths. We have no chance to read even 0.005 percent of all the books published. We need to choose wisely.

In light of this, it is extremely surprising that we reread books. Some of them many times. We could be reading stories we have never encountered before, but we nonetheless reread ones we are extremely familiar with. Why on earth do we do that?

One tempting answer is that we just like the comfort of what we know and we are reluctant to risk encountering something we may not like if we can just reread a novel we know we like. After all, if we know we will have a specific kind of reading experience from rereading a novel and we like having that experience, it seems like a good idea to have that same experience again and again (until we get bored with it).

Mental Imagery

But do we have the same experience when we reread a novel? No, we don't. And not just because we know the ending and will be less surprised by the plot twists. We have a different experience because reading heavily relies on the use of mental imagery, and the mental imagery reading conjures up can be very different on two different occasions.

Reading a novel tends to lead to mental imagery in a variety of sense modalities. This triggering of mental imagery is typically involuntary: You do not need to count to three and voluntarily conjure up the mental imagery of the protagonist’s face. Instead, you have involuntary mental imagery episodes somewhat reminiscent of flashbacks (this claim comes with the proviso that applies to all phenomena that have to do with mental imagery—namely, that there are huge interpersonal variations in this). While this kind of mental imagery is often visual (when you have imagery of the protagonist’s face or the layout of the room where they are), it can also be auditory (of the protagonist’s tone of voice, for example), olfactory, or even gustatory. Further, research shows that the more vivid the reader’s mental imagery is, the more likely it is that information from the novel is imported into the reader’s beliefs about the real world.

Names and Words

At the end of the first book of In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust gives a brief but very sophisticated account of how words trigger mental imagery. He makes a distinction between names and words and argues that names trigger a more specific or more determinate mental imagery than words. Here is what he says:

Words present to us little pictures of things, lucid and normal, like the pictures that are hung on the walls of schoolrooms to give children an illustration of what is meant by a carpenter’s bench, a bird, an anthill; things chosen as typical of everything else of the same sort. But names present to us—of persons and of towns which they accustom us to regard as individual, as unique, like persons—a confused picture, which draws from the names, from the brightness or darkness of their sound, the colour in which it is uniformly painted. (Proust 1913/1928, p. 556)

Both names and words lead to mental imagery, but then, in turn, mental imagery influences or colors the name or word when we encounter it next time. So throughout the unfolding of the novel, names/words and the mental imagery they occasion evolve in parallel, influencing each other.

Given these intricate workings of mental imagery while we read, we never have the same experience while reading the same book. The book is the same, but as our mental imagery is different, our reading experience will also be different. As a result, rereading a book can be a completely new experience.

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