Re-Reading

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For some reason, Emily Dickinson’s line, “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away” is running through my mind after re-reading Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. My AP Lit students read and studied Mrs. Dalloway before spring break, and I asked them to read Cunningham’s book over the break. Since it had been quite some time since I read it, a re-read was in order for me, too. I remember it didn’t quite land for me when I first read it. I recognized it was well written, but I couldn’t have foreseen I’d read it again. Because I really love the idea of intertextuality, and also because I borrowed my AP book list largely from a friend and colleague, I decided I’d do Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours together.

My students empathized with Septimus Warren Smith, and they really wanted to talk about him in our discussions, though they also marveled at Virginia Woolf’s writing and tried to connect to Mrs. Dalloway as a character, too. I think they did good work. I will be curious to see how they appreciated The Hours after having read Mrs. Dalloway first, because my first reading of The Hours was years before my first reading of Mrs. Dalloway, and I believe I appreciated The Hours more after understanding how it is in dialogue with Mrs. Dalloway.

What I have really been thinking about today, however, is re-reading. I often tell students that we bring everything we are, everything we’ve read, and everything we’ve done to each book. When we re-read with a gap of time, we often find we respond differently to a book the second time because we are not the same people we were the first time we’ve read, we’ve read more books, and we’ve lived more. In the case of The Hours, my response was entirely different. I connected deeply to the characters in a way I couldn’t when I first read the book 13 years ago.

I remember having the same reaction to re-reading The Catcher in the Rye. I read it as a teenager and despised Holden. Who cares about some ungrateful, annoying preppie teenager roaming New York? How horrified I was when a high school friend once told me he thought all teenage boys were Holden Caulfield. Years later, I saw Holden entirely differently, but it took becoming a mother and a teacher for me to empathize with Holden. Now I love that book and count it among my favorites.

While I know that there is a popular movement in English teaching today to throw out the whole-class novel study, I do still see value in it. I know for a fact that some of the books I am asking my students to read won’t land for them, not yet. I have told them so. And yet there is still value in reading and thinking about these books, letting them rattle around in our brains, and returning to them (if we want to) years later when perhaps we are ready for them to land. At the same time, I do think students need to learn what they like to read in order to become readers, and we should offer opportunities for students to choose what they read as well. The tricky part is not ruin a book so that students have no desire ever to return to it again. Of course, I never really know if students do return to books unless they make a point of telling me, and often they are living their lives, reading other books, and doing other things, so I never know for sure if they pick up a book we studied together, look at it again with their more experienced eyes, and connect to a book in a way they didn’t when they were in my class. But they do at least have the book, somewhere in their minds, and later, perhaps the book might just take them lands away.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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8 thoughts on “Re-Reading”

  1. I think rereading is so important and we should never discourage a student from reading a book if we think it may be offered later in HS. (I have been running into this lately). When I was a classroom teacher, I read aloud the same book for years. I always learned something new from it based on my life experiences from the previous year, or due to the new students I was sharing the experience with.

  2. Dana, this is such a smart post. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the community of readers we build when we share a reading experience. The conversations, the bonding, the listening that takes place through a shared reading experience matters so much, and it can’t happen when every kid reads a different book.

    Our reactions to books do change w/ time. And our students can’t fully appreciate the conversations contemporary books have w/ classic texts when they never read the classics.

    Love this post.

  3. Dana, I have to echo Glenda: I love this post. In my class, we’ve just finished reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. A couple students thanked me for scarring them for life and stated that they would never be able to get the horrible images out of their heads. I told them that I’d read the book in high school and had completely forgotten those horrific parts – this relates to what you say about time and place affecting everything we bring to books.

    Flash forward: Later in the week those same students either stated or wrote in their reading responses that, while the book was traumatic, reading it and discussing it in class was somehow fun and made them think more than they ever had while reading a book before. I love how a good book has the power to transform in the moment, a moment later, or a moment years down the line in the future. Thanks again for sharing!

  4. I don’t usually reread books. The only book I’ve ever reread was One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read it in English and Spanish in that order, I think. My son, on the other hand, rereads a lot of books, the Harry Potter series is a case in point. He has reread that series at least 6 times! I have so many books on my to read list that I would feel anxious if I reread a lot of books. I do, however, see the value of rereading and do not discourage anyone from doing so.

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