The Surprising Transformation of Re-reading

 I am lucky enough to belong to a really cool book group. One evening a month, 6-9 of us get together for a lively discussion about a pre-selected story. We even kept it going right through last winter, thanks to blankets and fire pits! (It seems like much more than a year ago when we discussed Ferry to Cooperation Island.

In April—once we regretfully wrapped up our discussion of The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue, by V. E. Schwab, a very hard act to follow—we couldn’t quite settle on what we should read next. Our only stated goals were something that would be a little easier to obtain than Addie but just as engrossing. And so I suggested The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. 

Let me just clarify: what follows is not a book review. Rather, it’s another chance to share a few surprises about the act of re-reading.

I read about a book a week, year in and year out. Most of them make an impression about as long-lasting as a low-tide sand castle. Only the best ones—those I want to spend more time with by reviewing, or by suggesting for book group—stay with me, though I usually forget many of the exact details. Hedgehog had made enough of an impression that it was easily dredged up from my memory banks, fifteen years after I first devoured it as a brand new novel. Once the group accepted it as our next read, I went looking for it on my bookshelves. 

Surprise #1: I no longer owned a copy.

I could picture the skinny blue spine, almost disappearing between the thicker novels either side of it, on a particular shelf where it had sat, ignored, for so many years… but at some point, I must’ve donated it to the Jamestown library. Hmm. Happily, it was easily available through inter-library loan. Maybe I borrowed back the same copy I’d donated; who knows?

Surprise #2: I wasn’t instantly drawn into the story. 

Some of that was the spring flurry of boat prep and sailing; after such a quiet winter, physical activity and catching up with friends were both very welcome. By bedtime, it was a battle to complete even a few pages before my eyes began to close. This writing is dense and requires complete attention; the opposite of a summer beach read. 

Surprise #3: The beginning was way too slow.

The plodding pace of the novel’s first third made me wonder: had my attention span shrunk? After so much work on my own writing, was I just more critical now of any story that didn’t instantly hook me? For whatever reason, I couldn’t achieve the joyous dropping-in that is the usual reward for rereading an old favorite.

Because it was for book group, I persevered.

Finally, about a third of the way through this not-very-long book, the unique characters began to interact and move their story along. Mixed in with plot, Barbery’s rich philosophizing made me want to turn down several page corners to mark a particularly distinctive thought—but usually I’d find a previous reader had already done so. (No, it wasn’t me, because I don’t actually do that.)

Surprise #4: I had completely forgotten the ending.

Like rain drops dripping into a bucket of water, Barbery’s wise words gradually collected into a beautiful story. And while I won’t spoil the ending, it does seem like it should’ve stuck with me through the years; way more memorable than a sand castle.

Despite my many surprises, I was very glad that I’d persevered—and very eager to hear what the rest of the group thought. Unfortunately, due to the chaos of May, I missed our monthly discussion; book group happened to fall at the close of a long and leaky launching day, and something simply had to give. I hear the book—as usual—inspired a lively exchange—and that I wasn’t the only one who thought it was a touch slow. 

Books meet us wherever we are in the moment, whether it’s amid the seasonal flurry of painting and launching and sailing or the quiet contemplation encouraged by a long New England winter. That makes re-reading a different experience, each time—especially with stories like this one. I would definitely encourage you to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog—but don’t bring it to the beach. Its deceptively thin appeal is much better suited to the more leisurely brain waves of February, when we have the time to really appreciate its depths. 

Got a book you’ve re-read that surprised you? Tell me about it in the comments below, or send me an email. I read every single one, with gratitude.

2 Replies to “The Surprising Transformation of Re-reading”

  1. I just experienced this myself with rereading Ken Follet’s Eye of the Needle. But I hadn’t remembered I had read it before until quite a ways into the story. My years of marriage gave me quite a different perspective and I loved the heroine in a whole new way.

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