why we go back

IMG_2013One of the comments on the last post has me thinking about when, during the process of reading a book, I will go back to reread.

Because I have so many books waiting to be read, I only stop to reread small patches–sentences or paragraphs. And I read with a pencil so I can underline them. So I won’t lose them. I’ll use a pen if I don’t have a pencil, but I prefer a pencil because if I make a mistake in the underlining or if my line is too crooked, I can erase and try again. I realize this is a little neurotic. Nevertheless, it’s true. I also used to have this thing that if I started underlining in blue ink, then I had to use blue ink throughout the book. Black ink, black ink. Thank goodness–no longer.


Cadoozles are my favorite pencils-5 inches long, the perfect size

With examples from Mary Gaitskill’s story collection, Don’t Cry, here are some of the reasons I will stop the forward motion of reading to go back and reread (other than the negative reason that I don’t understand the sentence or paragraph):

  1. the language is beautiful: “the anonymous little haunts  where songs were still alive and moving in the murky darkness”
  2. I’ve thought or felt the same thing before: “Music temporarily filled the empty space, soothing her and giving shape to the feelings she could not understand.”
  3. the author has put into words something I hadn’t even realized I thought or felt but that I recognize: “It was a cold fall night with a feeling of secret pockets and moving shadows.”
  4. the author has put into words something I’ve never thought about before: “Each scene covers and is covered and shows through the others, fractured, shifting, and shaded, like bits of color in a kaleidoscope.”
  5. the author has written about something in an entirely new way: “…even as I feel the anger, love rises up to enclose it. Inside love, anger still secretly burns–but it is a tiny flame. I can hold it like I once held my daughter in my body, a world within a world.”
  6. humor: “Teresa saw the false fingernails, now standing out from Dolores’s hands like evil thoughts.”
  7. I want to know how he or she did it–made the transition, allowed for the leap in my mind, brought me to this place.

I know I’ve left out many reasons that, now that I’m paying attention to this aspect of reading, I will realize in the next days.

Why do you go back to reread?

–and do you write in your books? (any ink issues?)

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9 thoughts on “why we go back

  1. I love Mary Gaitskill, although my reactions to the stories in Don’t Cry were a little more mixed than they were to the stories in Bad Behavior.

    I don’t write in books, but I do highlight passages I want to come back to and I mark pages with little post-it flags.

    The examples you’ve given are exactly the types of things I tend to mark. It’s those passages where I find myself nodding my head and thinking yes, yes that’s exactly what it’s like that I tend to re-read the most often.

    Unique and perfect description gets me too. On both counts I’ve used up a lot of highlighter ink with Proust and Bellow. They both amaze me.


    • Lisa, I agree. My reaction to the stories in Don’t Cry was mixed. Out of the 10, I loved 4, thought 5 were ok, and disliked 1. But there were sentences in almost every story that made me stop and go back to reread. I haven’t read Bad Behavior but am adding it to my list.

      Love the post-it flags and highlighting–yellow, I presume?

      Thanks for your comments!


  2. Cindy, I have the EXACT same neurotic pencil/blue pen/black pen issue. I can’t stand crooked underlines, especially when they touch the bottom of the letters they’re supposed to underline. And switching colors – Ahh! I generally have some sort of post-it note with me when I read, and when I have the time, I copy my favorite passages into a journal I like to call “beautiful words.”


    • Yay! It’s nice to know I’m not the only crazy one.

      And I used to copy favorite passages into a small notebook–on loose-leaf paper so I could alphabetize by author, so I would have some chance of locating the passage later–but now I put my favorite passages here.

      Thanks for adding to the conversation, Annie!


  3. Does it make me more or less neurotic that I would never use a blue pen or a pencil, but only a black pen – only, in fact, a specific type of black pen – when underlining in my books? I’m going to guess “more.”

    I mark things for all the reasons you’ve listed, as well as a few others. Sometimes I see an unexpected connection to something else I’ve been reading or thinking about, or a passage reminds me in a less-than-obvious way of another theme or plotline in the same book. Usually I mark these and write a little note to myself in the margin, so I won’t forget. Sometimes I’m trying to articulate to myself a specific quality about the book – the way it combines two seemingly incongruous approaches, for example – and I come across a passage that exemplifies that quality, so I mark it for later thought, or to share with other people.

    Thought-provoking post!


  4. Oh, Emily, a specific type of black pen….So all your books have the same look inside. I wish I’d thought of that years ago. I would love to know the kind of pen. Can you give us a link?

    Thanks, also, for mentioning those unexpected connections and the threads of themes as reasons to stop, reread, underline, and also note with a word or two.

    Nice to hear from you. Hope you’ll be back.


    • Why, I’m so glad you asked! I use these, in the micro-point variety. I love the way their ink spreads richly and easily onto all different papers. Plus, they were my the pens my dad used when I was growing up, so there is a family connection there, as well as the force of long habit. I have a bit of environmental guilt for refusing to invest in a more permanent, refillable pen, but I just can’t bring myself to give these up.

      You have a lovely blog, by the way. I’ve really been enjoying exploring, and I’ll definitely be back.


      • Thanks for the link, Emily. I can’t wait to try one. Perhaps this is the moment for me to go boldly forth with a pen…

        And thanks for your comments about the blog!



  5. Just read this on page 487 of Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency:

    “Francis took out the half-finished bulk of his own book, eight inches thick, an A4 notebook with black binding and three green Pentel pens. He’d always used those Pentel pens; he liked the flow of the ink-soaked ball under pressure.”


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