In a wide-ranging conversation about the pleasures of reading, Professor Alan Jacobs (who is a good follow on Twitter and wrote the very helpful How To Think) and Brett McKay spoke about re-reading books, “the value of returning over and over again to the same books if those books are ones that really nourish your heart and soul.” I was encouraged by this because I have a few books that I read multiple times.

Here are some of the books I re-read, and what benefit I get from re-reading them…

The Lord of The Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
Since being captivated by the movies and then being given the book in a beautiful three-volume edition in 2003, I have read this almost every year, over my Christmas and New Year holiday. As much as I appreciate the story and philosophy, it’s Tolkien’s sense of place that keeps me coming back. He devotes so much time to describing Middle Earth's geography and history that it quickly became familiar territory in my imagination. Returning to this book is like going to a well-loved holiday destination. The comfort of re-reading shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly at times of great change and distress.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
With the arrival of The Mirror & the Light, the conclusion of Mantel’s trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell, I took the opportunity to re-read the first two books in the series. I’m fairly certain I also re-read Wolf Hall when Bring Up The Bodies, came out. I do simply enjoy experiencing afresh the dazzling bravado of Mantel’s prose. My primary reason for re-reading, however, was to recall some of the myriad detailing in the series. We miss much when we read for the first time; at least, I do because I tend to be focused on the plot. Reading when you already know what is going to happen means that you can pay attention to some of the many other things a good novelist has put in their work.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
Another reason to re-read a great novel is that you have changed since the last time you read it. Experience gives us new eyes, or at least eyes that can see more. Gilead’s subject, an elderly church pastor reflecting on his life, is one naturally close to my heart. His goodness and his wisdom have brought me back again and again, almost like a conversation with a mentor. As with Mantel’s trilogy, I don't think that the successors Home and Lila maintain the same standard but they do inform my re-readings of Gilead. I continue to hope to have something of John Ames’s spirit if I’m granted as many years as he.

Jeeves and Wooster, P.G. Wodehouse
Of the eleven Jeeves novels, my favourites are probably Right Ho, Jeeves or The Code of The Woosters but this is rather like choosing between FabergĂ© eggs. Re-reading these is pure pleasure and joy; those who have ever been nearby when I’m reading one will testify to the involuntary snorts of laughter that they frequently produce in me. The plots have some fun twists and turns but they are really just a framework – an excuse, even – for Wodehouse’s unparalleled comic language. I can open any one of them at any page and be amazed and giggling in moments. (It may help the uninitiated to hear the voices of Hugh Laurie and Steven Fry when reading.)

The Bible
At my current rate, I read the New Testament and Psalms every year, and the rest of the Old Testament over three years, and have been doing something along those lines since 2002. All those gifts already mentioned – familiarity, the discovery of greater detail or more wisdom, joy – are all potentially present when I open my Bible each morning. There are many more that this particular re-reading gives me: reminders, rebukes, challenges, callings, perfectly-timed interventions, health like a shot of adrenaline or a daily vitamin tablet. The key one, however, is this: God speaks to me. I consider that when I open the page, He is opening His mouth. I pray that I will hear what He’s saying, and I try to respond to what I’ve read / He’s said. Again and again and again, He speaks. So I keep reading.


Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash.