Haven’t I Seen This Before? Know the Benefits of Rereading Books

Every year during the ISATS – the now-defunct Illinois Standards Achievement Test – I would reread the entire Harry Potter series from start to finish, one book a day, one page at a time. During my first AP week freshman year, I discovered a gem of a fantasy series – and I now reread this series almost every time I have finals, a stressful exam or presentation, or AP tests. A month ago, I reread Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda in preparation for a chemistry test and far too many extracurricular activities.

This week I’m rereading the Heist Society series by Ally Carter; in six months or so, I’ll reread it again.

So why do I keep coming back to the same old stories? What’s the purpose of reading a novel over and over when I already know what will happen – when I’m so familiar with the plot and the characters that I could retell the story to myself in my head with no need for the text?

It turns out that there are multiple benefits to rereading books – and not all of these benefits are related to stress-relief or nostalgia.

From a young age, humans yearn to hear tales more than once. Everyone’s heard the stories their parents tell – how when you were two years old, you would only listen to Goodnight Moon or Where The Wild Things Are before going to bed. Retelling these stories is actually extremely beneficial to young children – it helps them with word recognition, vocabulary expansion, reading fluency, and understanding the rhythm of the spoken word.

So how does that affect adults? According to online literary magazine The Artifice, we experience similar advantages: we become more familiar with the words and vocabulary and we comprehend the text on a deeper level.

Every book lover knows the rush of devouring a truly amazing novel – the scramble to the end to learn the resolution, the warm feelings one develops for characters. But in that hasty read, we miss details. I know that when I first read a certain series, I dashed through the text so quickly that when I reread it, I noticed dozens of facts and details that I’d totally passed over. Once one has read a novel the first time through, one can slow down during the second read – there’s no hurry to see the final fight scene or the last hurrah, because you’ve already read it.

And in that process of slowing down and wholeheartedly savoring the novel, you observe things. Syntax you love. Sentences that feel like poetry. Characters’ reactions that are more significant than you first realized. The novel becomes a sensory experience, and can be more enjoyable because of it.

Of course, The Artifice notes that rereading a story doesn’t guarantee greater comprehension. Only if one is looking for the complexities in the text will one gain that insight. However, I would argue in response that while, by rereading, I might not gain greater literary comprehension, I will understand the story better. Perhaps not better in the sense of knowing the symbols or rhetorical devices or ambiguous perspectives, but just better. I’ll be familiar with the plot; I will understand the characters more as people; I will notice new details in relation to world-building. My newfound knowledge will probably not be “literary,” but it will be mine, and it will be real.

This new understanding of the book – an understanding that is personal and different for every reader – will also lend feelings of nostalgia and love to the book. Feelings which, in turn, will help reduce stress when one rereads the novel and remembers those emotions. Feelings which also just produce pleasure, because there’s nothing more pleasing than returning to an old book – an old friend.

So, come AP week, there’s no doubt that you’ll see me frantically scurrying through the halls, clutching the same old books to my chest. I recommend you do the same.