Read it Again, Sam

My sister never understands why I buy books. We have a perfectly good library down the street from us, and if you’ve read something once then you surely have no purpose letting it lie around the house collecting dust. After all you already know what happens, right? She herself has multiple dressers and wardrobes packed with clothes and the latest style of accessories, many of which get worn just once before they’re forgotten about, or ruined by a spilled cocktail in a club. But extra books? That just doesn’t make sense.

As much as I disagree with her, it got me thinking. What do we gain by re-reading a book? (Or watching reruns of our favorite TV shows? Or seeing a movie a second, third, or tenth time?) Why do we seek to re-experience something the ending of which we already know?

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The thought came to me a few weeks ago when I was looking for something fun to read this summer. Most of my bookshelf holds slightly dry non-fiction and Classics that (although lovely), are a bit verbose and require too much attention to bring out to the hammock. Happily, I came across an unexpected favorite that I had not read in years: Harry Potter.

Within a week I had finished the first two books, and though with every flip of the page I knew what to expect (having read them and seen the films several times over) I was eager to continue. My entire commute home from work was spent itching to continue reading the adventure I knew only too well. It is a testament to how spectacular the books are, and how timeless the story really is. But what isn’t so transparent is WHY I was so eager, almost anxious to re-experience these books.

For my twin sister and me, Harry Potter was almost equivalent to childhood. The first three books were released in the U.S. just before our eleventh birthday (leaving us to eagerly look out for any stray owls carrying our invitations to Hogwarts). When Harry turned 14 in The Goblet of Fire, we had just turned that same age, and when Harry was leaving the comforts of Hogwarts to enter adulthood after finishing school at 17, my sister and I were about to enter college. To read the books now, fresh out of college, having already read them (and seen the film adaptations several times as well) was to experience them at a new stage in life.

Perhaps we re-read books to relive a time in our lives. Perhaps remembering the context and circumstance of our first experience of something is equally as important at the actual item we experienced. Quite honestly, I think that knowing the ending made me appreciate these books even more (if possible). I’m no longer distracted by my curiosity. I’m not quickly devouring the pages to get to the ending and discover the culprit. Now I am able to appreciate the little hints and clues that Rowling adds to tip us off right from the start to point us in the right direction. It becomes an exercise in sleuthing: if we are given the information Harry and his friends were, could we put it together?

Revisiting what’s known can have a powerful effect on us. It reminds us of what we know and how we got there. While some may view it as a simple matter of “I like this book”, part of that experience of liking something is forever tied to a memory of our first encounter with it. The anticipation of reliving a positive experience can be just as exciting as a new experience.

I like to think of re-reading a book as ordering your favorite dessert. You know what’s coming because you’ve had it before. You know you’re going to love it, and you know you’re going to feel slightly sick from sugar overload after, but it will be well worth it. Rereading a favorite book is much the same game. We are no more likely to stop revisiting our favorite stories than we are to stop eating our favorite foods. For me, Harry Potter is as much a childhood memory as is Halloween candy, and as far as I can tell I will not lose my taste for either (no matter how much the repetition or how far out of the targeted age range I become) any time soon.