Lisa Clemmer, a 37-year-old bibliophile from Richmond, Va., remembers the first time she read Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” She was in college, at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Walker’s novel introduced her to a world she knew nothing about.
“The Color Purple” proved so transformative that Clemmer has read it four times.
“I like to go back just to reinvigorate that feeling. I get all tingly from it. It moves me to a different time and place,” says Clemmer, who just a year ago last read Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story of blacks in rural, segregated Georgia.
Clemmer’s taste is not unique. According to a study by the American Library Association, “The Color Purple” ranks among the fiction most commonly re-read. Others include the Harry Potter books, the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and Shakespeare’s plays.
“I think books that get re-read have characters or scenes or lessons that people want to go back to again and again,” says Neal Wyatt, the head of an ad hoc ALA committee that analyzed what books are re-read.
“Some books need repetitive readings just to feel like you got it. And sometimes it’s not even fair to say the books are re-read because you’re a different person each time you read them,” Wyatt said.
Also cited by the committee: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie,” Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh.” The ALA committee was composed of both librarians and editors with the trade publications Library Journal and Booklist.
The findings were not ranked and were based both on the committee members’ personal opinions and those of library patrons. Only novels, plays and short stories were considered; panel officials said the Bible and the Quran are likely the most re-read texts in the world.
Many reasons to revisit books
The ALA selections all share one quality: they were encountered in youth, whether assigned in school, read to by a parent or discovered on one’s own. But favorite works are revisited for various reasons. “A Christmas Carol” is a holiday classic, while the summertime setting of “Gatsby” makes it an ideal beach read. One committee member, Joyce Saricks, says that the frequent staging of Shakespeare’s plays inevitably leads to re-readings of the texts.
“I get a lot of people who tell me that they’re going to see a production of ‘King Lear’ and they want to read the play. And then after they see the production, they might re-read the play again,” says Saricks, who recently retired after more than 25 years at the Downers Grove Public Library in suburban Chicago.
For professional writers, re-reading can be as much for education as for pleasure. Susan Minot, whose books include the novels “Monkeys” and “Folly,” said she likes to go back to the works of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. She doesn’t read the whole book necessarily, just enough to remind her of why those writers matter.
“They were probably the earliest authors who blew my mind, and so they’re the ones I’ll check back with, getting reacquainted with the voice,” she says.
Richard Ford, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Independence Day,” said he likes to re-read Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer” in a “a purely sensuous way.” Jeffrey Eugenides, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” says he re-reads Saul Bellow’s “Herzog” obsessively, almost continuously, calling it his “literary caffeine.”
“The language of that book, which is to my mind Bellow’s greatest achievement, reminds me of what I’d like to be doing,” Eugenides said.
Revisiting an old favorite can enrich your appreciation of it — or destroy it. Saricks says she was “horrified” when she went back to Hemingway. Mystery writer Lawrence Block loved reading James T. Farrell as a child, but as an adult found the prose “leaden.” Minot had an even more disappointing reunion with Thomas Wolfe’s verbose “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
“I read that in high school and it was incredible,” she said. “But when I looked at it again, I thought, ‘Oh, no.’ It didn’t hold up. I read just one page and I quickly closed up the book.”
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