Writer in Residence

The lost art of rereading

By Alison Wearing

There was a trail I used to walk when I was broken, decades ago, after I'd scooped my heart from my chest and passed it to a man, who'd winced, shrugged, and said, ummmm, no thanks.

We’ve all been there.

It was spring then, and life felt obscene with pleasure and new life: buds and crocuses and every songbird in the neighbourhood pining for a date. Avian Tinder.

I walked a lot in those days, took long circular hikes because it was the thing that hurt less than everything else. Working: agony. Socializing: torture. Television: depressing. Eating: impossible. So: walking. And reading. Rereading, actually, because I could not yet bear the promise of new story. And because I needed to be reminded of who I had been.

Before the flaying.

To say that revisiting familiar books was comforting misses the mark. It was reassembling. As if skeins of myself existed in the stories that had first woven me into being and I was gathering them now, twirling them together, purling myself back into form.

To this, and to the walking, I credit my reemergence. And to nature, its determined lessons: that death is nourishment; that the one true goal is light; that beauty is generous and everywhere; that joy is not sought, but allowed.

What I noticed about the walking, the daily circles I sketched into the land, was how it felt to become intimate with the familiar, to move through the same space again and again, to be intrigued by its subtleties.

The first time we hike, we see the view, the wow, the scale, the grand outline of cliffs against sky. It is awe and appreciation. But it is a flash, meteoric and fleeting, at once memorable and evanescent.

But when we return, and continue to return, we notice more: the ripple-shadows that hover beyond the shapes themselves, the dancing lace of light through leaves, how many times trees catch each other when they fall, the patience of hawks, the shelf of strength that builds in us through the long, silent witnessing of cliffs.

A similar thing happens with books.

When we read a book the first time, we see the story, the wow, the characters and their intrigues, we feel the anticipation of an unfurling plot. If we are enjoying the book, we don’t want it to end. But it does! It ends. And is shelved.

It is only when we return that we see: the invisible architecture that houses the story and allows it stand so effortlessly, the quiet shading of characters and who they are beyond what they say, how bloody hard the writer worked for that sentence and that rhythm and clatter of syntax, the themes that lie in the folds of the story, the masterful appearance of simplicity.

In this age of information overload, when there are a zillion things to read online, toppling stacks of books by our bedside and shelves of books that have never been cracked, who has time for rereading? And why bother?

Because there is depth in return. And if you are someone who is interested in writing, you will learn ten times more through the rereading of one beautiful book than in the reading of ten books only once.

And if you choose a book you love, it might also heal your heart.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Alison Wearing is the bestselling author of Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter, an Indigo Top 50 pick shortlisted for the Edna Staebler Prize and longlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize, Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey, and Moments of Glad Grace. Her online program, Memoir Writing, ink., guides people through the process of transforming personal stories into memoir.