One of the many blessings of discovering kindred spirits in online reading communities is the realization that I am not alone as a re-reader.
I have always loved re-reading books. As a child, the books I loved most were books I went back to again and again. It surprised me when I discovered that not everybody did this, and I went through a period of time when I thought perhaps I was just weird or perhaps not as smart as people who could get everything they needed or wanted from a book the first time through and go on to other things.
Gradually I began to realize that I wasn't re-reading because I forgot "things that happened" in a story (though sometimes I did, and part of the joy was rediscovering events or lines I'd forgotten!) but for the sheer pleasure of revisiting a world I'd loved the first time through. We would never say "oh, I've been to grandma's house once, so I never need to go again." Every trip is different and new, even though elements of such visits are comfortingly familiar.
I use grandma's house as an analogy partly because it was my own paternal grandmother, who came to live with us when I was nine, who presented me with one of my first pictures of an adult re-reader. My parents, who loved books and made sure our house was full of them, were rather busy in that season of my life, busy raising four of us children, taking care of my invalid grandmother, and working hard at their various jobs and household tasks. They both read, but mostly late at night or in the cracks and crevices of their busy lives.
(Side note: I still recall marveling that my mom could fall asleep over a book, something I almost never used to do -- until the past few years. Middle age has not deprived me of my love of reading, but it has ensured there are times when I simply cannot keep my eyes open and end up with my face pillowed on a paperback.)
But my grandmother, who was confined to bed for large portions of the five years she lived with us, seemed to read constantly. And I was intrigued that she went back to her favorites again and again. Suddenly I didn't feel so strange about reading Little Women for the third or fourth time, because there was Mamaw cracking open the red covers of Jane Eyre again.
I've been reading C.S. Lewis' An Experiment in Criticism for the first time, and it's such a delight to hear Lewis talk about the joys of re-reading. He hails literary readers as "deep" readers, who often want or need to go back to the same book again and again. He seems to feel that a good book is a book that can and should be revisited often. All of this gels wonderfully with the thoughts of John Granger, whose reflections on the Harry Potter stories I've enjoyed now for several years. In his new book, Harry Potter's Bookshelf (due to be released tomorrow!) John talks about the "slow mining" one can do in the great books, books that have been written with more than one level of meaning and that provide rich treasures for those who are willing to keep going back to dig.
I don't often consciously choose what to re-read when, but more often than not, I find myself busy with a re-read at the same time I'm reading other books for the first time. Certain authors seem to pull me back into their worlds at regular intervals, and even sometimes in regular seasons (Austen is almost always an autumn/winter re-read for me.)
At the moment I'm re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and absolutely loving it. Although I typically re-read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings every 5-7 years, it had been quite a while since I'd done a full read-through of The Hobbit. I'm guessing it's been at least a decade (I know the last time was before the sweet girl was born, at any rate, so over 7 years). I'm about fifty pages from the end now, with the Battle of the Five Armies on the horizon, and while certain images and scenes have definitely come back to me, I'd also forgotten many things. It's been wonderful to re-read for the sake of the story itself, but also eye-opening to think of it as a "prelude" to LOTR (so many foreshadowings and set-ups!) and even to read it with my recent re-read of the Harry Potter series in mind.
I'm still not sure where I fall on the spectrum of thoughts about Tolkien's influence on Rowling (how direct or conscious such influence was) but it's been interesting to note certain similarities. One realization I had was how much Rowling pulls on and yet also subverts, in her usual fascinating way, the story tradition of dragons. Tolkien's Smaug is such a nasty, greedy brute, hoarding every bit of plundered treasure so that he knows down to the last ounce exactly what he's sleeping on, even though he never puts any of it to use except to encrust himself in diamond armor.
It makes perfect story-telling sense for Rowling to have dragons guarding the treasures in the vaults at the deepest levels of Gringotts, the wizarding bank, but the plight of those dragons seems so sad as they're not free (not even free to be greedy and nasty as in stories of old!) and the treasures they are guarding are not their own. By the time we get to Deathly Hallows, we've been long set up to feel sympathy for dragons through Hagrid's care for a baby dragon (and his love for all wild things) and even Harry's grudging admiration for the Hungarian Horntail. The dragon the trio meets in Deathly Hallows is a sad portrait of a proud creature now broken and in chains, trained like a beaten dog to guard someone else's hoard. It makes the whole escape from Gringotts in DH yet another yet moment when Harry, acting on intuition and his own love-shaped character, frees an oppressed fellow-creature. I know it's not his main purpose (he needs to find an escape route, after all!) but it's a happy by-product of his actions, and one that he never seems to regret. As much as JKR writes about Harry's "saving people thing" it's his "freeing people/creatures thing" that feels almost as interesting, whether it's making glass walls disappear at the zoo so the boa constrictor can slither away or making sure Mr. Malfoy hands Dobby a sock. And oh, the fruit of Dobby's freedom...
I did happen to notice that the bit of treasure that Bilbo first sneaks from Smaug's mountain of treasure (the missing bit that enrages the dragon once he wakes up and realizes he's been robbed) was a two-handled cup. It reminded me forcefully of Helga Hufflepuff's cup, the horcrux Harry, Ron and Hermione manage to get from Gringotts and then flee with on the back of the dragon. This time around, the enraged creature is not the dragon (who could care less about the treasures he's guarding for wizards and goblins and only wants his freedom) but red-eyed almost totally inhuman Voldemort. No wonder Voldemort has such an affinity for snakes and basilisks. He's got a greedy, hoarding dragon heart.