Teaching Today

Teaching Rereading

Students may resist it, but rereading a literary text offers many benefits, argues Rachel Wagner.

January 3, 2018

Whenever I teach Hamlet in first-year college writing, the room is split between students who have read it before and those who haven’t. Some of the people who have read it already seem annoyed at the idea of rereading a play from high school. Sometimes they say it, and sometimes they just write it in their evaluations at the end of the semester. Those who haven’t read it usually seem excited to finally read the play. Yet multiple people have said that they wished they could have read a new Shakespeare play instead.

As class goes on, I’m reminded who is unhappy about reading it again -- those are the students who don’t read the assigned sections as we go because they already know what it’s “about.” If we read Claudius’s first few lines and I ask if he seems wholesome or not, they automatically say no -- and not because they see him overperforming, but rather because they know what happens later. One part of the problem is getting students to read at all, so getting them to read something twice is even harder.

Watching them reread or not makes me think about the role rereading plays in my life. I don’t have to convince my toddler to reread books. At 2, he’s obsessed with rereading. It’s practically the only way he reads. We can take just one book with us on a day of errands and that usually covers us for a few hours. At home, I try to limit him to reading a book twice before switching to another one for my own sanity.

I’m left wondering what happens in between baby books and college texts that makes some people reluctant to reread. It may seem like a waste of time when there are so many books, essays and stories to be read, but -- especially for first-year writing classes -- rereading forces students to go beyond plot to look for word choice, style and tone. Students come in ready to summarize after so many years of writing book reports, but asking them to reread the texts they’re working with allows them to actually experience language to find deeper meaning.

It happens every semester. We close read essays or stories together in class, looking at specific lines and phrases to think about why the writer wrote it this way instead of any other way. It feels great when they start catching on. Then I get their first drafts, only to see that they’ve reverted right back to summarizing. It takes a while to break them out of it. They just want to cover everything. I try to explain that if they’re going to summarize the whole thing without a point of their own, then their reader might as well read the original text.

During the time we spend on Hamlet, I’m also always sure to tell them that these plays of his, which we know to be so special, were not all originally his own. Many are retellings of stories that came before him. The reason we obsess over Shakespeare isn’t for the plot but for his writing. It’s not that plot isn’t exciting and important to be able to catch on to, but it’s not as important as craft.

Sometimes I’ll start the Hamlet unit by asking them to watch a few videos that summarize the plot for that exact reason. If they’re too caught up trying to figure out what’s going on, they won’t be able to enjoy the language. That’s also the introduction for my request that they don’t read translations. I actually had an observation report done while I was teaching Hamlet a few years ago that mentions that, from the observer’s view in the back of the classroom, some of the students were on Sparknotes during the class discussion. It would seem, then, that many people never actually end up reading the play at all.

Those who take the time to reread the play seem to have positive experiences. One student said that in high school they wrote a paper that listed out information about the relationships other characters have with Hamlet. They found that using “Panopticism” from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish as a framing text, which was a requirement for the assignment, helped them analyze a theme instead of running through a character list. Another student said that they had to reread sections of the play in order to actually close read Shakespeare’s language for the paper. They recognized that their draft was mostly summary, and rereading helped them to notice a rhetorical trend: Hamlet uses repetitive, back-to-back questions to manipulate people. Another student wrote that they simply felt more confident writing about Hamlet because they’ve read it before.

Rereading offers other benefits as well. Approaching any text again and again allows stories to change because you change. I remember rereading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita after grad school and feeling like it moved a lot faster than I thought a few years earlier. The first time through, I think I was so shocked by the book’s emotional pull that I had to physically slow down. I almost couldn’t believe what I was reading. It seems like I was reading that book for weeks. When I revisited the book, the quick pacing, now that I knew to be more skeptical of the narrator, suggested something new about the speedy process of obsession and abuse. It happens fast. Then it’s over. I was still physically consumed, but rereading the book completely changed my response to the story.

A lot of books, like Nabokov’s, also say what’s going to happen right away before circling back to begin the story. Lolita starts at the end. Humbert says that Lolita will die in the first few pages. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room does the same thing with Giovanni’s death in the first chapter. The whole novel practically skips the middle of David and Giovanni’s story by focusing instead on how the two men meet and separate. Nonlinear plotlines play with readers’ curiosity. Many stories, like these two, also use the traditional romance genre plot by using various, often erotic and romantic, triangles. It’s expected that one person will struggle between two people or two selves, and the one you kind of think they’ll go for is the one they’ll end up with. In these ways, it doesn’t matter if you’ve read the book already or not -- everyone starts out knowing the ending.

Rereading is something that is also found right in the literature itself. A professor of mine once pointed out that Lizzy rereads Darcy’s letter many times in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as if to encourage you to keep rereading, too. She reads “with somewhat clearer attention” the second time. Then, after promising to never read it again, “in half a minute the letter was unfolded again.” Her experience rereading this letter changes her, and her various readings of the letter inform her (mis)understandings about Darcy’s intentions.

Her reading process is even separated from the letter by a chapter break, forcing you, the reader of the novel, to read on and, out of curiosity, probably go back to reread the letter as well to see why she couldn’t stop reading it. Similarly, the narrator of Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” simply must reread the newspaper story that details his brother’s imprisonment. Right in the beginning of the story, Baldwin writes, “I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again.” These instances of rereading within the texts themselves treat their own nuance to their situations as a part of the character’s growth.

The value and presence of rereading isn’t limited to fiction. Right now, I’m teaching a course on nonfiction, and after reading students’ paper drafts, I decided to replace a reading on the syllabus with the essay they chose to analyze for their paper. One problem I noticed was that they were having trouble paraphrasing accurately. I told them in class that although I’m sure some people will not want to do it, rereading the essay will help them revise their papers.

During the next class meeting, students said that the essays were much easier to understand because they had a summary in mind. Others said that it helped to reread because when they originally read the essay, they didn’t know that it would be the one they’d write on, so their objectives were different. Originally, they were reading to come into class ready to talk about it; this time, they were reading for ideas. One student said that they wished they had reread the essay before they even started the paper, because they noticed that they didn’t really get what it was about the first time around.

When students shy away from returning to a text, no matter the discipline, they are choosing to trust their untrustworthy memories for details and facts. Whether it’s in an effort to save time or a lack of interest, a refusal to reread is a refusal to reconsider and complicate their original ideas.

The best example of complex rereading is, of course, Hamlet itself. I always slow down at the end of the final scene when Hamlet requests Horatio to “tell him [Fortinbras], with the occurrents, more and less, which have solicited.” Then Hamlet dies. Within a few lines, Horatio orders Fortinbras and his army “that these bodies high on a stage be placed to the view; and let me speak to the yet unknowing world how these things came about.”

It’s a moment that I didn’t notice the first time I read the play. My graduate adviser pointed out that crucial moment in class once, and something clicked for me about the strangeness of hanging bodies and the grotesque nature of keeping stories alive after they end. In asking to be reread, the play is a sort of retelling already. With all of the Hamletesque tropes found in popular culture, his request did not go unheard. Rereading, then, is something that happens whether we know it or not.


Rachel Wagner is a writer from New Jersey and an instructor at Seton Hall University. She contributes to Book Riot and does freelance work.


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