Like finding pieces of your soul: Books and the magic of rereading

Achala Upendran

In the Harry Potter series, the dark wizard Voldemort creates something called a Horcrux. These are objects that house pieces of his soul; so long as the object remains whole and unbroken, Voldemort cannot be killed. This is great if you’re a Dark Lord with aspirations of immortality; not so great if you’re even vaguely concerned with morals – as most characters in children’s literature tend to be. In fact, there’s very little that’s sympathetic about Voldemort, even on a rereading of the books. And I would know, as someone who’s reread them. A lot.

Illustrations: Soumya Menon

I’m a serial rereader. This was once considered a bad habit by my mother. “When will you ever read other books?” she’d ask when she caught me reopening Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “When will you graduate to something…more?” She complained when I told her I was finishing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for the third time in as many months. By the time I had completed a long-targeted seventh reread of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, she had given up asking.

Why would someone reread a book not just once, but multiple times? It’s a valid question, especially when posed to someone who enjoys reading as much as I do. Shouldn’t a bookworm want to use their reading hours – hours that become increasingly harder to find, as one gets older and life unwinds – to experience as many books as possible? Isn’t that what most reading challenges are about, expanding literary lists and cutting down a hypothetical reading pile? Why spend a significant portion of those hours reading the same thing over and over again?

We’re going to try and answer this extremely important question here.

The Julius Caesar game
In class 9, I was introduced to Shakespeare. His Julius Caesar was on the syllabus for the dreaded ICSE board exams, and in preparation I read Romeo and Juliet and Othello. I did this on the off-chance that the teacher asked, “Has anyone read any Shakespeare before?”, so I could put my hand up and stun my classmates with my brilliance. Unfortunately for my 14-year-old self, this did not happen.

It was only when classes began, and my English teacher started reading the text aloud, that I realized – I had not actually read Shakespeare. I had run my eyes over the lines of two plays, chasing verses until the close of Act V. I had an idea of the plots, and I could probably name a few characters, but I hadn’t lingered over the music of the language. To be fair, I did not have the skill set needed to appreciate it, but over the course of two years, it would be built into me, one line at a time.

Through Caesar, I learned what it meant to actually read a text in a classroom setting. We spent entire lessons dedicated to teasing apart the meaning of a single line, traced terms through spirals of etymology, unpacked a character’s psyche through their asides and the metaphors they chose to use. We spent so much time – two whole school years – immersed in this play, learning to appreciate every word choice, every stray allusion. In fact, because we read it so very closely, quotes from Caesar actually ended up in everyday school conversations, and my friends and I would play a game during lunch break, where we’d scrawl character names on the board from memory. When we ran out of ‘real’ names, we’d compete to see who could come up with the most ludicrous nouns from the text: a lion gazing at Caesar in the street, the adder that could strike someone down, Brutus’ sword that (spoiler alert!) runs him through at the end.

The point is, because we spent so much time reading and rereading and decoding the play, its language became ours. It’s been years since I read Caesar, but I can still hear its music, the faint notes of ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ tickling my ears. That play, and those classes, taught me how to immerse myself in a text, and bring it to life in an academic setting. And even more miraculously, how to take a text out of an academic setting and breathe it into life.

Taking the Ring to Mordor
A couple of weeks ago, I saw a meme that said ‘nobody understands the bond between a girl and the mediocre book she read when she was 13.’ This hit home; at least two of the books that I consider among my ‘favourites,’ that I’ve reread a lot, came into my life around that time. One of those was The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), the book that made me a fantasy fan for life.

We had a copy of this book at home, old and flaking apart. I remember thinking, ‘If I read this, I can read anything’ – both because it was so massive (the longest book I’d ever attempted at the age of 12) and because it was the first one I read from the ‘grown-up’ shelf at home. Until then, my reading had been restricted to the standalone bookshelf I shared with my sister, and offerings from the children’s library at Secunderabad Club.

I loved LOTR, and when my uncle told me he’d read it seven times, I made it my mission to best him. The book became a part of my identity. I learned Elvish* and made collages featuring the characters. Like many young teenagers, I needed something to build my sense of self around, and the book delivered. Rereading it became a way to define myself, at a time when I needed it most.

I wonder if that’s why the ‘girl’ from the meme is so connected to her ‘mediocre’ book. Thirteen-year-olds aren’t known for their self-esteem, and books, unlike people, don’t make you feel self-conscious. At least, not if they’re done well.

From stones to hallows
Among the many gifts LOTR gave me was an abiding love of fantasy. And one of the benefits of classic fantasy is that books tend not to be standalones, but series comprised of three, five, seven books. Sometimes more.

Harry Potter is one of those series. I started the books when I was 12, and they kept pace with me as I grew up. When Harry finally left school and flashed forward into adulthood, I had graduated and started a new chapter of my life in college. We saw off our childhoods together, moving in lockstep, or so it seemed.

Of course, I’ve reread the Harry Potter books many, many times. Possibly more times than I have LOTR. Because those books saw me through six years, I’ve stocked them with a multitude of memories. Sometimes, I think I react to specific scenes in certain ways because at this point, some part of me expects to feel a certain way. The first time I read Sirius’s death scene in Order of the Phoenix, for instance, I was inconsolable in the way only a 14-year-old dealing with her first heartbreak can be. The experience was so vivid that it’s coloured every ensuing encounter, with the result being that every time I reread Order, I find myself sobbing openly over those chapters, even now at the ripe old age of 34.

It’s almost like I become a past version of myself, reconnecting with a part of my soul that’s housed – somewhat bittersweetly – in those pages. Stumbling upon a Horcrux, created unwittingly in ages past.

In A Game of Thrones one of the characters muses: ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…the man who never reads lives only once.’ Human lives are unpredictable things, their only constant, change and finiteness. Books offer a means to forget that, to escape into other lives and skins for a brief time. And in some instances, books offer a means to reconnect with your own past lives, re-meet pieces of yourself. It’s not quite immortality, but it’s close enough for me.

*One of Tolkien’s fictional languages, spoken by some of the characters in the books and complete with its own grammar and vocabulary.

The author is a writer and analyst based in Los Angeles. She spends a lot of time immersed in fictional worlds – on the page and on screen – and can be reached at achala@upendran.net.

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