Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Reading and Repetition


This year, my younger daughter appears to have caught every virus and germ that has come to town, resulting in a lot of time on the couch with laptop or book, recovering from whichever flu, stomach bug, cold, or ear infection currently has her down.

This year, we have also developed a familial television habit. Watching Project Runway, Gilmore Girls (on DVD), and Glee has proven a delightful way for Mara, Eva, and me to spend time together, as well as a satisfying return to my compulsive narrative habit.

Before I had kids, I watched a lot of television. NBC Thursday night sitcoms made me laugh, but mainly I couldn't wait to see what would happen next on L.A. Law, Beverly Hills 90210, and Melrose Place. I stopped watching TV when Mara was six months old, when her eyes started straying to the screen and my life morphed into the working parent chaos that makes it impossible to know for sure that I'll be able to watch a show. For me, this is intolerable. Like I said, my narrative habit is compulsive: I always want to know what happens next, and I can't bear to miss anything (an episode of a television show, a book in a series, an installment in a multi-day newspaper exposé). In the days before Tivo, DVRs and Hulu, when missing an episode meant waiting till reruns, this made television impossible.
If you're waiting for the connection to Eva being sick, or, for that matter, to books and reading, here it comes. When she's sick, Eva does plenty of reading, during her most recent stomach flu, for instance, The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time, the second Callahan Cousins book for the first time on her own (she eavesdropped when I read it to Mara), and Betsy-Tacy, for the umpteenth time. But she also haunts Megavideo and Hulu, watching her favorite scenes from Gilmore Girls and Glee again and again.

A fundamental difference between me and my daughters is that where I eagerly move forward in my reading, on to the next page, chapter, and book, refusing to interrupt the progress of narrative, Mara and Eva are the queens of rereading -- and, in the case of Eva, rewatching. Mara likes to reread the Little House books, Julia Child's My Life in France, and the Best Food Writing series. Eva is partial to revisiting the Abby Hayes books, Betsy-Tacy, and The Mysterious Benedict Society. Both girls certainly read new books, but when push comes to shove, they love their old favorites.

This baffles me. Why go back to books you already know when there are so many books you still haven't met? Sometimes it even worries me. Are my children fixed in some childish stage, the one where they insist on reading Bread and Jam for Frances every single night until their parents want to throw the book out the window? Have their circuits been permanently disrupted by videos, CDs, DVDs, and the Internet making all culture available all the time, in any order or amount anyone chooses? Would their habits appall Walter Benjamin, author of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," who holds that when technology makes art more available, "the quality of its presence is always depreciated"? Will their inability to move on stunt their futures?

Rather than make myself crazy, I decided to go straight to the source. When I asked Eva why she likes to read the same books and watch the same TV shows over and over, she replied, "Because they are good." When I pointed out that other things are good too, she said, "I've watched these and like them. When I reread things, I usually just reread my favorite part." When I asked Mara the same question about the books she incessantly rereads, she said, "I like the books, and it lets me appreciate them again and again and again. Sometimes I understand them better or get a new meaning out of them."

Apparently, they reread for the same reason I always eat mocha chip ice cream, wear my blue patent leather clogs every chance I get, and love to return to our favorite inn in Maine: for pleasure, specifically the pleasure of what we know we love. This makes some sense to me with regard to books: as a former English professor, I've read Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Middlemarch more times than I can remember, enjoying them and gaining new insights every time. When I want to read something I know will make my heart quiver, I return to the last paragraph of James Joyce's short story, "The Dead."

And yet, one of the reasons I so love to read is that there is always something new; no matter what happens in my life, there will always be more books to read. It's a different pleasure, to be sure, and a pleasure more easily thwarted: if I pick up a familiar book, I know what I'll get; if I pick up a book I've never read -- or go to a movie I've never seen or a gallery I've never visited -- I could be making a huge mistake, condemning myself to pages or hours or frames full of agony. But I could also discover my next great love.

Part of me wants to conclude by saying it's all good: the pleasure of narrative compulsion, the pleasure of picking out your favorite bits; the joy of a new book, the joy of an old favorite. And yet I think the key to it all being good is that we be open to both. To refuse to revisit the old would be to deny ourselves genuine pleasure; to opt out of the new would be to limit ourselves to stasis. So I'll stop teasing Eva about how many times she's watched the Madonna episode of Glee, but I'll keep taking her and Mara to the library to pick out new books, and while I'm there I'll get some myself.

Rebecca Steinitz has written for The New Republic, The Utne Reader, Salon, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Hip Mama, Inside Higher Ed, Publisher’s Weekly, BookPage, and The Women’s Review of Books, among other places. She is a contributor to the anthologies It’s a Girl and Mama PhD and her book Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary will be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year. In her previous life as an English professor, she taught nineteenth-century British literature, feminist theory, and writing. She now works as a writing coach in the Boston Public Schools. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters.

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Nice post. Funny-I never re-read either. Like you, the joy for me of having a never-ending reading list is that there's so much new out there for me to grapple with and learn about. But my 9 year old son re-reads his favorite books (as well as new ones) all the time. I've thought a lot about why adults do/do not re-read but never about kids. Thx for this food for thought. Delia Lloyd
I resonate with both sides of this debate. I too was a regular re-reader when I was Mara & Eva's ages, and now generally only read books I haven't encountered yet, under the heading of "so many books, so little time." And yet, being Jewish, I love the fact that we reread the first five books of the Bible every year, in order. Every year I'm in a different place in my life, and come to the story with fresh eyes and mind, taking something new out each time. You're right; we need both the new and the beloved in our lives all the time!
I'm on both sides, too. I love re-reading and I love reading new stuff. But with watching, what I noticed with my kids was their pleasure in re-watching certain scenes, not whole stories. My daughter used to go back to favorite parts of Fantasia, skipping the rest, or even to favorite small scenes of more narrative films. I began to think she had a different relationship to narrative than I do--one where she was more in control. Rather than submit to the narrative as given, she (still) freely starts and stops, skips and jumps and repeats. My son, as well, skips between DVRd episodes of favorite tv shows, only watching what he likes, not caring whether he's getting the "official story." I've not caught up to them on that one yet. (And, yes, they both do read novels front to back, at least the first time, so they seem not to have completely lost the narrative impulse.)
And so you reveal another way in which we're similar and our daughters are similar yet we differ from our daughters. I'm a pretty adamant non-rereader/re-watcher, but Nory loves to go back and re-read at least her favorite parts of her favorite books. Although she's excited about new things to read, every library trip ends with at least one repeat check-out. I can't blame it on TV/DVDs/Hulu, etc., because neither of us does that much of the screen stuff. It just occurred to me that, however, that I do generally prefer to listen to the same music I've been listening to for the last, oh, mumble-mumble years. Why is that different? Thanks for the insight and food for thought.
Great column! Jenna used to look forward to the last page of a book so that she could start it again (and again and again.) We teased her about it (because, like you of course I can't wait for the pleasures of a new story.) She was delighted when she announced that in college one of her best friends is just like her and loves rereading. Danny only reread certain books (like Harry Potter and Isaac Bashevis Singer--what do they have in common?) It IS fun to think about the connection with songs and movies as well as TV shows!
Like you, I rarely re-read, but I often wish I would go back and re-meet Holden Caulfield, for example. I just re-watched Harold and Maude after maybe 25 years. What a stunner. I had forgotten not only the details, but the true essence of the film. A great narrative, and quite funny. Your description of the craving for the next bit of narrative is familiar. Thanks for more excellent writing!
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