Why do I re-read things I don’t like?

P-L asked an interesting question in the comments on my post about The Princes of the Air.

You seem to re-read quite a few books that you don’t actually like. (At least, I think this is not the first one you’ve mentioned…) Can I ask why? There are so many, many books out there; it seems like it would be easier to find something new that you do like.

I answered it briefly there, but I’ve been thinking about it some more since.

There are several reasons why I might re-read a book I don’t like. The main reason is that I’m an hopeful kind of person. The second I think is habit. I started to read when I was very young, and I constantly encountered books that were too old for me. I was constantly being told that things were too old for me, and sometimes they were and sometimes they weren’t, but I early became familiar with the idea of getting more out of something on a re-read. In any case, if I didn’t enjoy something I’d plough my way through without even necessarily understanding it. I’d finish it with a sigh of relief.

The supply of books at home was finite. There were quite a few books, but some of them were forbidden and I had to go to the trouble of stealing them, and then reading and replacing them unnoticed. The books I was allowed I read and re-read. I so deeply internalised this state of things that P-L’s “so many many books out there” still doesn’t feel normal—it feels delightful, it feels like putting one over on the universe. The existence of all those unread books feels like a violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, like magic. It never quite feels like something I can rely on.

But since the supply of books at home was finite, eventually I’d have re-read all the books I liked too often to read them again, and at regular intervals I’d try the ones I hadn’t liked to see if I’d grown into them in the interval. Sometimes, I would have. Lorna Doone and Ivanhoe were both books that I didn’t get and then I did. So was David Copperfield. But even the earlier times I read them, I got something out of them. I didn’t like them, no, but there were images that stayed with me, flashes, moments. I’d remember that moment and think that I was older and the whole book might be like that now.

This is very much the spirit in which I re-read The Princes of the Air. I remembered the awesome details of zero gravity eating, and the scam in which four guns become two new spaceships. I know that I normally love John M. Ford. I know other people think highly of this book. Maybe, I thought in the back of my mind, I’m old enough now. Maybe this time I will like it.

Or, I might decide that I hadn’t been fair to a book other people like a lot. This is the case with Lord of Light. A lot of people think it’s a wonderful book. It was Potlatch‘s Book of Honor this year. I have friends who think it’s one of the best books ever. I’m always inclined to give a book the benefit of the doubt and think it might have been me. And Lord of Light certainly has those flashes. If I can remember the flashes, I’m prepared to give something another go.

My usual reason now for re-reading something I don’t like, or I like less, is because it’s part of a series and I’m re-reading all of it. I tend to read every word in order, not skip about the way I hear some people do, and if it’s the kind of series where everything counts, I don’t like to skip bits there either. This is how I read Teckla and Athyra frequently enough to have them grow on me. Sometimes I do normally skip a volume I don’t like but I’ll re-read it for completion when I’m planning to write about it. This is the case with Cetaganda.

But all the time here I have been talking about books I don’t like or don’t get, books I almost like and feel I ought to like and might like if the world or the book or I were older, or just a little different.

If I really hate a book, I’m never going to re-read it, and this was the case even when I was a little kid. Nothing would induce me to re-read The Sparrow or Xenocide or Grunts. Or, for that matter, A Laodician.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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