"One cannot read a book: one can only re-read it."


What's the book you've re-read most? Vladimir Nabokov, one of the 20th century's most controversial authors, wrote:

Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.

Oh goodness is he right.

One of the best things about being a teacher is that I'm forced to re-read my favorite books. And I rarely re-read a book without understanding it better. I'll see how the ideas connect together more broadly; I'll see why certain examples are used.

Sometimes I'll realize that the book has a neat, simple thesis that I entirely missed before. Sometimes I'll realize that the thesis I thought I had discovered was really the wrong thesis.

Maybe I just suck at reading? Well, I doubt it. (And if I do, at least I have Nabokov for company!)

Re-reading is one of the secrets of good reading. Re-reading leads to a more extensive understanding of the text. Re-reading leads to a more precise understanding of the text.

And re-reading leads to a deeper love of the text. We're designed to love things we've encountered before: the much-studied familiarity principle: the more you see it, the more you like it. Advertisers, of course, understand this: that's why you've seen Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl a hundred times. (She grows on you, Flo.)

And yet — obviously! — there's another side to this: forced repetition is alien, unpleasurable, hateful. Forced re-reading would ruin reading.

So: how can we encourage students to experience the joys of re-reading without telling them to re-read?

Well: I'm still working on this. But here are some of my current thoughts:

  1. We keep the books that students love. If a student attends our first grade, she can be sure that if she loved a book, it'll be there for her to read again in twelfth grade.
  2. We encourage students to pick up a book they've read before: maybe one they've especially enjoyed — or especially hated. (I find it useful to return to books I despise. Sometimes — sometimes — it turns out the problem wasn't them, but me.) We can do this occasionally, during our individualized reading periods (our S.S.R. or D.E.A.R. periods when the whole school will be rapt silent with readers). We might even let the older students re-visit the younger rooms to find those books, and enjoy them the way they did before — say, splayed out on the rug.
  3. We revisit some of the same topics over the years, and encourage students to briefly rehash some of the books they had loved. This, of course, is what we're doing with our Big Spiral History curriculum — posts here, here, here, here [deep breath!] and here — going through all human (and cosmic) history in three cycles, each of four years. So there's a reason to re-read first grade books in fifth grade, and a reason to re-read fifth grade books freshman year.

But I imagine this is just a start. How else can we use re-reading to increase love, mastery, and wisdom in our school?

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA