Books I'm Afraid to Re-Read

Some of my favorite books of all time are ones I read in late or extended adolescence (I prolonged it as long as I could). It's a period when we seem to be at the height of receptivity for anything romantic -- or maybe it's that we define everything as romantic. Others are circumstantial favorites -- that is, ones for which my emotional attachment to the book came from the reading experience itself -- in one case, for example, curled up with a boyfriend on the sort of couch that only exists in student housing, reading aloud to each other irresistible and meaningful passages.

Certain favorites are likely to remain on my all-time best list because I'm reluctant to re-read them. Who knows what I'm afraid of? That they won't stand the test of time? That a second reading might pierce those magic moments of my romantic youth? That I'll wonder why I liked them in the first place? That I'll look at the books with a jaded, older sensibility? That they'll remind me of a person I no longer am? Am I revealing too much here?

Maybe it's folly even to talk about re-reading when many of us don't have time to read in the first place, but these are among the titles I'm afraid to re-visit:

1. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. In 8th grade I wrote a book report on a joint biography of the Bronte sisters (Charlotte, Emily and Anne) and immediately developed a crush on the whole family (especially brother Branwell, naturally exotic, whom I once thought to name my first-born son after). I loved the moors from which they came, the wildness of the place where they lived (nothing -- and no one -- was wild in Ohio), the places they created in their fiction (Gateshead Hall, Lowood School, Thornfield Manor), and the oh-so-alive characters in their books. But it was Wuthering Heights that set me on the search for my own Heathcliff. Reason enough not to re-read it?


2. Look Homeward, Angel and 3. You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe. Thomas Wolfe was a mythic man to me - a kind of real but no-longer-living Paul Bunyan, whose stride across the pages kept me running alongside, all the way to the end of these two long books. I loved the language, the descriptive torrents, the breathless style, the backward glances at growing up. I was pulled in from the beginning by the titles alone.

4. Sometimes a Great Notion, by Ken Kesey. I read this in the late '60s (it was published in 1964) after I'd followed some of the adventures of Jack Kerouac on his road and Kesey and his Merry Pranksters on theirs. Here was a world far from my own, which is exactly what I liked. The spunky Stamper family had all the drama that mine lacked. "Never give an inch," patriarch Henry Stamper's motto, became my watchword for a while. I can still picture the roiling river, the spirited rants and rages, the Oregon coast. Kesey once said, "I think 'Sometimes a Great Notion' is the best thing I'll ever write." I agree.

5. Waterland, by Graham Swift. Probably enough of a reason not to re-read this one is that I read it over several days of unending rain while sitting by my father's hospital bed when he was dying. And the book's meditations on mysteries, on history, on the movement of time, on stories spoke to me profoundly. Perhaps I don't want to re-read this one because I don't want to risk losing the lessons I took away.

What books are you afraid to re-read?

-- Evelyn Small

By Christian Pelusi |  February 21, 2008; 11:15 AM ET Evelyn Small
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I am afraid to read Catcher in the Rye. I think you need teenage-angst to really get it.

I just reread The Great Gatsby - one of my favorites from school - and was shocked at all the stuff I didn't get when I read it then. It's like reading a new book.

Posted by: md | February 21, 2008 11:43 AM

similar to previous commenter, i don't think i could/should reread A Separate Peace. I developed a crush on Phineas when I read it in, what, junior high? I don't want to find out that it's not quite the moving experience that rests in my memory...

Posted by: patricia | February 21, 2008 11:58 AM

I don't really have any books I wouldn't think about rereading. But this is sort of the flip side to your question: I've actually been rereading books from high school of late, and seeing things I didn't see before.

I reread The Great Gatsby also, and was actually surprised at how beautiful the book is. And like the first poster, it's amazing how much I missed the first time around.

I also reread Heart of Darkness, which I read in both high school and college. The difference is this time, I read it soon after reading King Leopold's Ghost, which is a history of the Congo under Belgian rule. I had always thought Heart of Darkness was an allegory about the nature of evil, and I guess it is still that. But this time around, I realized it's more a factual account of some of the terrible things that went on in the Congo.

I'm actually thinking now about rereading The Scarlet Letter (which I hated in high school) and Great Expectations, now that I have an adult appreciation of Dickens.

Posted by: kleewrite | February 21, 2008 12:08 PM

Like kleewrite, I re-read Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine every few years. And thanks for mentioning The Scarlet Letter! I'm going to read it again!

Posted by: Jamie | February 21, 2008 12:11 PM

I also re-read The Great Gatsby recently and was blown away by its beauty and power. I, too, missed so much when reading it in high school. And now I am inspired to re-read The Scarlet Letter and Heart of Darkness, thanks to the previous comments!

I am afraid to re-read The English Patient. I dearly loved the book when it was first published, and I'm afraid my tastes may have changed too much in the intervening years.

Posted by: Michael T. | February 21, 2008 12:36 PM

I don't think you lose the magic from your adolescence on re-reading, instead you get a tiny fraction of all the heightened emotion you felt at first. The problem is trying to read an adolescent book as an adult. I somehow missed Tolkien as a teen, and simply can't get through it now.

Posted by: Becky | February 21, 2008 1:25 PM

Agree with the comments about Gatsby -- didn't like it in HS, loved it in my 30s.

Also, do NOT read Wuthering Heights again if you have fond memories of it. I too had vague memories from reading it in HS of lovers on dark moors, and reread it recently -- Heathcliff was basically an abusive husband, father, and father-in-law, and not a single character was appealing.

Posted by: cc | February 21, 2008 1:38 PM

I am afraid to reread Graham Greene's work, particulary "Brighton Rock." I read that one for a class and was totally captivated by it. Now, I'm worried that it'll lack the same magic since I know the twist.

Posted by: word nerd | February 21, 2008 1:49 PM

I recently re-read a couple of post-adolescent favorites, with mixed results.
"The Milagro Beanfield War" by John Nichols was every bit as magical as I remembered, and I enjoyed every word.
"A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole, however, seemed horribly dated (and out-dated). What a disappointment.
I, too, loved "Sometimes a Great Notion" when I was younger and, thinking about it because of your post, am afraid to re-read it -- for fear it would seem trapped in its counter-culture timeframe, a la "Confederacy."

Posted by: Rockville | February 21, 2008 2:55 PM

Interesting topic!

I've been disappointed the few times I've re-read a book that I really liked.

When I first read Catch-22 in sixth grade or so, I thought it was hysterical. When I re-read it many years later, I found it tragic. Why did I think this was so funny? Youth, probably.

I read One Hundred Years of Solitude at least 3 times, mainly for classes. I still can't remember it very well. I read Beloved at least twice, the second time for a class. At least I understood it better upon further review.

I've been thinking of (again) re-reading Catcher in the Rye, my all-time favorite. That's one I don't think you need to actually be a teenager while reading to understand. Some of that horrible feeling of angst and not belonging never goes away. "I'm positive, in fact."

Also, I have about 2 dozen unread books at home calling my name, not to mention the ones I'm awaiting from an Amazon.co.uk order ... and the ones on my to-do list ... So revisiting books takes away from them!

Posted by: Leslie | February 21, 2008 8:34 PM

Let's agree on one thing: school and a feeling of obligation can be murderous to a great work!

The book I'm afraid of rereading is "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," which I read as a totally guilty pleasure at age 15. It wasn't assigned. It wasn't even suggested. I just tripped on it on my mother's (or big sister's!) bookshelf.

What I remember is that no hunger, no exhaustion could keep me from that book, and that, throughout, I thought I was treading on forbidden territory. I would hate to go back to that novel and discover that it was -- in all worldly measure -- far tamer than I recall. That sense of involvement in characters and plot is what I've been trying to relive ever since. (Not without some success in the interim, by the way!)

Posted by: Marie Arana | February 21, 2008 10:16 PM

I'm often afraid to re-read any book after I've seen the movie. I worry that my mental pictures will be overridden. I somehow managed to read Gone with the Wind before ever seeing Vivien Leigh meet Clark Gable. Years later, I picked it up again and all I could see in my mind was... them. Not necessarily bad, but I still feel like I lost something.

Oh, and Becky, Tolkien is one of those unusual authors who (IMHO) are better read out loud. I bailed on it twice (once in HS when it seemed to be the only books my friends would discuss) and finally read it out loud to my wife about five years ago. Throughly enjoyable for both of us!

Posted by: Thad | February 21, 2008 10:56 PM

I am afraid to reread "The Bell Jar," for fear that now that I have grown out of my "depressed artist young woman" stage, I won't enjoy it.

Posted by: Carolyn | February 22, 2008 4:09 PM

At last, a breather of a moment to comment on some of these great comments: I told my book club (which met the night before this blog was posted) what the theme was and several women immediately said "Catcher in the Rye" would be at the top of their list of books they're afraid to re-read; one woman suggested that maybe it's a book so tied to its time that even angst-ridden teens wouldn't relate to it now. (That's a good topic for another blog.)
When I wrote the introductory graphs to this one, I first included a title ("David Copperfield") that I have read again and again, but deleted the reference in favor of concentrating on the topic, but since someone else mentioned Ray Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine," I want to add my second to that as one I re-read every few years, usually in late spring in preparation for summer. It always makes me want to go out and buy a new pair of running shoes. So, this only raises the question again of why we re-read some and are afraid to re-read others. There's certainly no definitive answer but I'm having fun thinking about it and reading your thoughts.

Posted by: Ev Small | February 23, 2008 11:13 AM

Having raised three children, I have had an opportunity to re-read books from my youth. One book I didn't "get" when I was younger was "A Tale of Two Cities." When my daughter had to read it in high school, at first, she didn't "get it" either. With all of my life experiences and decades of watching societies unfold, I was finally able to explain to her what the book was about and we both "got it."

One book I would never read again was Huck Finn. Torture! If my worst enemy was in solitary confinement, I would send them a copy!

Students at our high school debate banned books. The year I served as a judge the book debated was "The Bell Jar." I agree with the poster that said they outgrew their depressed artsy state. From listening to the kids debate the book, many have no clue about the marvels of psychiatry and discoveries made in the field since the book was published. Likewise, many of the educators teaching the book do not know how effective treatment of depression can be. I think the book should be re-read, but only in the context of reading other books on depression and treatment.

AHHH! Wuthering Heights! Unrequited love. Should be read and reread through eternity! Again, having raised three kids and watching them fall in and out of love and having their tender hearts broken,reminds me of Heathcliff and Cathy.

Posted by: voracious reader | February 24, 2008 9:14 AM

I did reread "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe" before the movie came out and was very disappointed. I'm also afraid to reread "The Headless Cupid" because I was obsessed with that when I first read it in fourth grade.

Posted by: Alexa D | February 25, 2008 5:40 AM

I share your reluctance to re-read books that I loved in high school or as a young adult. I refuse to re-read any of Salinger's work or Jack Finney's Time and Again. I'm afraid of breaking the spell cast by those books, of spoiling memories. I also would not consider re-reading The Bell Jar.

I finally relented and recently read From Time to Time, the sequel that Finney wrote, and I regret it. It was a terrible disappointment.

One funny note -- when I was in high school, I loved Herman Wouk's novel, Marjorie Morningstar, but I hated the ending. I re-read it about twenty years later out of curiousity. My take on everything had changed so completely, and I couldn't believe that, like Majorie, I had been so taken in by the character, Noel Airman -- a rather pathetic figure at best.

Posted by: Shirley Springfloat | February 25, 2008 6:28 PM

I can't make up my mind about re-reading Catcher in the Rye. I remember the novelty of having to have parental permission to read it in my 8th grade English class more than the book itself.
I haven't gone back to re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I read it several times in my early twenties and really loved it. I think I am afraid to re-read it now because maybe it won't impact me like it did all those years ago -which would say more about the changes in me than whether the book still speaks to readers.

Posted by: Kay | February 26, 2008 6:03 PM

I am afraid to revisit Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. I went through a huge science fiction phase in my teens and twenties, and that was the series that really got me into it deeply.

I still read sci-fi sometimes (I am currently into David Weber's Honor Harrington series), but my tastes have broadened greatly and I mostly read a variety of other stuff. I guess I am afraid I will be disappointed the second time around, even though it is an acclaimed series.

Posted by: CJB | February 28, 2008 12:21 PM

Huckleberry Finn. 1984. Animal Farm. Candide. The Martian Chronicles. Richard III. Every time I read any of them I feel I'm seeing them anew. Maybe I'm growing into them.

Posted by: DFC | February 29, 2008 4:16 PM

I'm afraid to reread Carson McCullers. I had a burning passion for her work in high school. I read her everything I could find by her, and wrote a major research paper on her work. I'm afraid that now a book called The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, starring a girl who walks around her neighborhood all night, listening under people's windows to "Motsart", somehow wouldn't have the same appeal to me now.

I used to be afraid to reread my other high-school favorite, All the King's Men. I reread it once in college and thought it was really hokey. Since then I've picked it up again and now I think I've put it into proper perspective as a great work of its time, a lot like Thomas Hart Benton's murals.

Posted by: csdiego | February 29, 2008 4:18 PM

if you liked look homeward angel, you should definitely definitely read "of time and the river." its youth immortal at its best. the book is out of print, but can be found at used book stores throughout the area.

Posted by: ap | February 29, 2008 4:44 PM

This is so interesting to know that others share the fear of re-reading books from youth. My two that I'm afraid will lose some of their luster are "Of Human Bondage" and as someone else mentioned "Brighton Rock." I was captivated by both books when in 10th grade. I re-read recently Ursula LeGuin's "The Dispossessed" and regretted that I had not done another reading of this remarkable book sooner. So my plan is to get going on those other two soon.

Posted by: Cattus Blackia | February 29, 2008 7:37 PM

I recently purchased and re-read a book from my childhood -- a young-adult novel called The Bigger Book of Lydia, which I first read when I was 11 years old. I remember being so deeply affected by its message (it's about a young girl who never grows taller than 4", whose anorexic cousin comes to stay with her family; one's trying to grow while the other is trying to shrink) that it stuck with me for years. I started looking for it again in my early 30s. I found it last year and was struck by how, well, adolescent it is.

Made me a little sad...

Posted by: NurseJen | February 29, 2008 10:18 PM

I have now stopped re-reading books that had enchanted my young years. When I was about 11, I read with enormous pleasure "L'oiseau bleu" (the blue bird) by Maurice Maeterlink, a French (actually, Belgian) author : a tale about two children looking everywhere in the world for a blue bird, which they finally found in their own home. On the re-reading, it was definitively spoiled by me and appeared contrived and dusty.

This is the reason why I am afraid of re-reading "The little prince", by St-Exupéry.

On the other hand, I can re-read any book by John Updike (specially the so-called "Maple stories") and I never tire of them.

Probably your mind and appreciation change definitively when you reach adulthood.

Posted by: barvaux_raymonde@yahoo.fr | March 1, 2008 4:06 PM

I'm afraid to revisit the original, 'The Adventures of Pinocchio' by Carlo Collodi. Such a wonderful book I read growing up, over and over and over and over. But alas, I will surely pick it up again soon - just to think of it puts me back in that warm, blue comfort zone...

Posted by: Heather B. | March 5, 2008 10:05 AM

i though i would my $0.02 . . . i have only re-read ONE book, and it's because everyone always talks about re-reading books. it was the princess bride (one of my favorites) and it was as enjoyable as the first time. i don't think there are any other books (other than reading to my kids and, now, grandbaby)that i would RE-read when there are sooooo many new books to devour.

Posted by: robyn andrews | March 5, 2008 10:34 PM

I HATED Wuthering Heights. I read it for the first time as an adult. Maybe I would have liked the darkness and gloominess when I was a dark and gloomy teen. I also hated Great Expectations. The characters were so unlikable. It was like watching the Sopranos: there was no one to root for.

I won't re-read The Life of Pi, even thought I got the beautifully illustrated version for Christmas. I would consider Catcher in the Rye. I really liked the Scarlett Letter the third and final time I read it.

Posted by: atb | March 6, 2008 12:05 PM

I won't read the Lord of the Rings Trilogy or the Hobbit again. I loved them but I'm afraid they would dissapoint if I tried to read them again.

Posted by: Jill | March 26, 2008 10:59 AM

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