There is a scene early in the 1990 movie The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter where the protagonist Bastian Bux has this exchange with the book seller Mr. Coreander:
Koreander: [spotting Bastian with the book] Put it back![Bastian jumps and ends up slamming the book shut].
Koreander: That book has too much on you.
Bastian Bux: But it’s “The NeverEnding Story.” I’ve already read it.
Koreander: Ahh, but have you ever read a book twice? Books change each time you read them.
This stuck with me since then. And while at the time I thought it had to do more with the books themselves, with time I realized it was because I was never the same. When I re-engage with the book, when I sat down to re-read it, it wasn’t that the book itself changed but that with time I was a different person.
I think this is a key thing to keep in mind when thinking about reader reactions and how we engage and re-engage with media. This doesn’t apply to books only, you don’t watch the same movie twice. I would even argue you don’t hear the same song twice. And it all comes back down to that simple fact- if you are not the same person, you are not engaging the same way.
Some people read or watch something just once. Usually it’s under the idea that once they know the story, there is no surprises to be had. What is interesting is that when you think about it, this is something most people grow into. Almost everyone had that book or movie (or both) they would go over and over as kids.
When we are little it seems that among the things we knew and then forget is the fact that stories are constantly evolving when you read them. With the same certainty that we knew our toys moved on their own, we would watch the same thing over and over until it broke and still enjoyed it the same as the first time. To me it even seems like we would enjoy it even more. We knew the songs, we could excitedly anticipate plot points, and we could begin to see more of what went on beyond the story too.
So why do we loose this when we are older? Not everyone does of course, there is still some of us that re-engage with media constantly. And I am willing to bet almost everyone has had that moment when they are browsing Netflix and even if you have a long queue of things to watch you settle in to see that series or movie you already know by heart. thats one of the aspects, the comfort there is with knowing the story. Even high tension moments that still can cause your heart to race, you are made more comforting by knowing that all will be ok. So when we watch or read a story we know we have the comfort of that certainty.
The Evolving Engager
But I want to go back to a key part in my argument. You yourself are not the same as the person who first read the book or watched the movie. The me who first picked up Jane Eyre and the me that re-reads it or re-watches it now is not the same. When I re-engage with Jane and her story now at 30 it is not the same as when I first engaged with it at 17. Sure I still love Jane’s declaration of not being a bird, of not being a machine, and defending her feelings and her personhood. But I no longer find Rochester’s games as charming. I mean, recently I even began feeling a little bad for Blanche Ingram. Even things I have always liked, like how I always felt an attachment to Antoinette Mason, is no longer the same. The first time I read Wide Sargasso Sea I was a first year college student. When I re-read it recently I had a harder time feeling bad for the ex-slave owning protagonist even if I still felt she was played a bad card when it came to Rochester.
That’s what is important here I feel. That we change as much as the stories and that adds new dimensions even to things we thought we knew well. It’s not only about noticing the little details, like say for example re-watching a movie like The Prestige and suddenly realizing all the tells. About how you also maybe re-examine how the main plot affected the characters around when you re-engage. It’s maybe also finally understanding something, such as Little Women had a lot of points where it seems the mother was too moralistic on the girls.
In the end, I guess what I want to say is that for me, there is no such thing as engaging with something twice. Re-engage is not something that means to enjoy the same story just as it was, re-engage means more that you once more go into a story and discover it anew. So if you are someone who has always thought that to watch, read, or enjoy a media once was enough because after you already know the main plot- give it a try. You never know what surprises are still left to discover.