You might think that rereading an old book isn’t the same thing as revisiting an old place. After all, places change, books stay the same.
But what if we thought of a different anchor point? What if the anchor point is you?
Just like an old place can look different from a new point of view, so can a book. Sometimes, when we read a book the first time, we simply haven’t experienced enough life to fully take in what that book has to offer. Even though we’re reading the same words the second time around, the book can seem wholly different—completely new.
Because I’ve reread it so many times, and because it’s likely the most familiar to all of you, I’ll use the Harry Potter series as an example.
I started reading the Harry Potter series when I was 11 years old—around Harry’s age when he first heads off to Hogwarts. This was a particularly special time to read the books, as I got to read each book when I was around Harry’s age.
You know what stood out to me the first time around? The same thing that probably stood out to every pre-teen and teenager reading the books: wizard kids—they’re just like us! They have stupid fights and silly crushes and stressful tests and school bullies and annoying siblings. They enjoy trips to town and playing sports and having snowball fights. They know important things, like how good friends can make all the difference, and that doing the right thing can be hard. Reading Harry Potter the first time made me feel less alone. And is there anything more important than that in middle school?
The second time I read Harry Potter, I was in college, competing at an entirely different level than I was in high school. I was valedictorian of my high school, but I was never one of those kids who didn’t have to work hard. I studied mercilessly. And I planned to do the same thing in college.
But college was harder. Most of my friends were in the top 10% of their high school classes. Most of them had full-ride scholarships. And most of them had a lot more money than I had. And that was hard, too.
So when I reread Harry Potter, I saw something I’m ashamed I didn’t see the first time: Ron’s family was really, really poor. I didn’t see it when I read it in high school because I didn’t want for much. But now that my friends could afford three beach vacations a year, lived in giant houses in Mountain Brook, went out to eat five times a week, and dropped money on parties like it was nothing, I suddenly had a clearer picture of how Ron must have felt. And that, too, made me feel less alone.
The third time I read Harry Potter, I was a new college graduate, trying to figure out what in the hell I was going to do with my life. I was also wrestling with a lot of important moral issues. I was 20 when I graduated from college, and I’d spent the past two years learning relentlessly, and a lot of what I was learning didn’t fit with what I’d been taught by society. I knew I had to change, but changing seemed terrifying.
But you know who changes a lot in Harry Potter? Almost everyone. And they change when the stakes are really, really high—life or death. I knew that some of the issues I was wrestling with were life or death, too. Not just for me, but for the people about whom I held certain views. Dobby broke my heart every time I read the series. But suddenly, on my third read, Dobby wasn’t just a house elf. He was so many people to whom I had turned a blind eye. Dumbledore wasn’t just a fantastic wizard and mentor, he was a gay man who had not been able to live the life he had wanted. Draco wasn’t just an asshole, he was a kid, raised with prejudiced views, trapped in an impossible situation. I had missed so much. I was missing so much in the world, too.
So then I went to graduate school to study political science, and you can image how that changed my next reread. Harry Potter had it all! Racism, protests, slavery, war, alliances, rigged contests, corrupt government, social activism, classism, totalitarianism, educational disparity, terrorism, anti-terrorism, indoctrination, progressives, conservatives, sexism, capitalism, socialism, unjust laws, an unjust justice system, etc. I’m not saying my fourth reread of Harry Potter wasn’t enjoyable—it was just much more analytical, and therefore, sneakily educational.
I reread the Harry Potter series in 2017 as a full-fledged adult. You know what stood out the most this time? That good and evil are things, not people. That everyone has inside them the capacity to be both, that we can be good one day and evil the next, and that nothing is promised in that regard. This is, by far, the most important thing the series has taught me—the most important reminder I carry into the world. Every human can make the right and wrong choices. Every human can change and change and change. Every human can be evil. But more importantly, every human can be good.
There is so much I would have missed if I didn’t reread, so many lessons I would not have learned. I encourage you to reread your favorite books not simply because they promise to be just as delightful the second time around, but because I’m certain new doors will unlock for you in each reread.