Jul 15 2008 6:18am

Why I Re-Read

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who re-read and those who don't. No, don't be silly, there are far more than two kinds of people in the world. There are even people who don't read at all. (What do they think about on buses?) But there are two kinds of readers in the world, though, those who re-read and those who don't. Sometimes people who don't re-read look at me oddly when I mention that I do. "There are so many books," they say, "And so little time. If I live to be a mere Methusalan 800, and read a book a week for 800 years, I will only have the chance to read 40,000 books, and my readpile is already 90,000 and starting to topple! If I re-read, why, I'll never get through the new ones." This is in fact true, they never will. And my readpile is also at, well, let's just say it's pretty large, and that's just the pile of unread books in my house, not the list of books I'd theoretically like to read someday, many of which have not even been written yet. That list probably is at 90,000, especially if I include books that will be written in the next 800 years by people as yet unborn and books written by aliens as yet unmet. Wow, it's probably well over 90,000! When will I ever read all those books?

Well, I read a lot more than one book a week. Even when I'm fantastically busy rushing about having a good time and visiting my friends and family, like right now, I average a book every couple of days. If I'm at home and stuck in bed, which happens sometimes, then I'm doing nothing but read. I can get through four or six books in a day. So I could say that there are never going to be sufficient books to fill the voracious maw that is me. Get writing! I need books! If I didn't re-read I'd run out of books eventually and that would be terrible!

But this argument is disingenuous, because in fact there is that towering pile of unread books in my bedroom at home, and even a little one in my bedroom here in my aunt's house. I don't re-read to make the new books last longer. That might be how it started... The truth is, that there are, at any given time, a whole lot more books I don't want to read than books I do.

Right now, I don't want to read Storming the Heavens: Soldiers Emperors and Civilians in the Roman Empire by Antonio Santosuosso, and/or The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies and Trade by Maria Eugenia Aubet. I do want to read both of these books, in theory, enough theory that they came home with me from the library, but in practice they both have turgid academic prose that it's work to slog through. I am going to try to slog through the Phoenician one before I go home to Montreal and the book goes home to Cardiff library, but the other one is going back unread. (The Phoenicians, unlike the Romans, are insufficiently written about for me to turn down a solid book for bad prose.) But yesterday, when I was picking up books to take to read on the train to London, both of them glowered at me unwelcomingly. I was already in the middle of one (pretty good) book on Hannibal's army, I wanted fiction. And I didn't just want any old fiction, I wanted something good and absorbing and interesting enough to suck me in and hold my attention on the train so that I wouldn't notice the most boring scenery in the world -- to me at least, who have taken the train between Cardiff and London quite often before. I didn't want

to have to look out of the window at Didcot Parkway. I had some new fiction out of the library, but what I wanted was something engrossing, something reliable, and for me, that means something I have read before.

When I re-read, I know what I'm getting. It's like revisiting an old friend. An unread book holds wonderful unknown promise, but also threatens disappointment. A re-read is a known quantity. A new book that's been sitting there for a little while waiting to be read, already not making the cut from being "book on shelf" to "book in hand" for some time, for some reason, often can't compete with going back to something I know is good, somewhere I want to revisit. Sometimes I totally kick myself over this, because when I finally get around to something unread that's been sitting there I don't know how I can have passed it over with that "cold rice pudding" stare while the universe cooled and I read The Pride of Chanur for the nineteenth time. 

My ideal relationship with a book is that I will read it for the first time entirely unspoiled. I won't know anything whatsoever about it, it will be wonderful, it will be exciting and layered and complex and I will be excited by it, and I will re-read it every year or so for the rest of my life, discovering more about it every time, and every time remembering the circumstances in which I first read it. (I was re-reading Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist . "The first time I read this was in a cafe in Lytham St Annes in 1987," I mentioned. "How can you remember that?" my husband asked. "I don't know. It was raining, and I was eating a poached egg on toast." Other people remember where they were when they heard that Princess Diana was dead. I haven't a clue, but I pretty much always remember where I was when I first read things.)

This ideal relationship doesn't always work out. Even when I like the book in the first place, sometimes a re-read is a disappointment. This usually happens when the thing that was good about the book was a temporary shininess that wears off quickly. There are books that pall when I know their plots, or become too familiar with their characters. And sometimes I read a book that I used to love and find it seems to have been replaced with a shallow book that's only somewhat similar. (This happens most often with children's books I haven't read since I was a child, but it has happened with adult books. This worries me, and makes me wonder if I'm going to grow out of everything and have nothing to read except Proust. Fortunately, when and if that day comes, in several hundred years, Prust will be there, and still pristine.)

A re-read is more leisurely than a first read. I know the plot, after all, I know what happens. I may still cry (embarrassingly, on the train) when re-reading, but I won't be surprised. Because I know what's coming, because I'm familiar with the characters and the world of the story, I have more time to pay attention to them. I can immerse myself in details and connections I rushed past the first time and delight in how they are put together. I can relax into the book. I can trust it completely. I really like that.

Very occasionally, with a wonderfully dense and complex book I'll re-read it right away as soon as I've finished it, not just because I don't want to leave the world of that book but because I know I have gulped where I should have savoured, and now that I know I can rely on the journey that is the book I want to relax and let it take me on it. The only thing missing is the shock of coming at something unexpected and perfect around a blind corner, which can be one of the most intense pleasures of reading, but that's a rare pleasure anyway.

Re-reading extensively can be a bad sign, for me, though a sign of being down. Mixing new possibilities with reliable old ones is good, leaning on the re-reads and not adventuring anything new at all isn't. Besides, if I do that, where will the re-reads of tomorrow come from? I can't re-read the same 365 books for the next 800 years. I've already read some dearly beloved books to the point where I know them my heart.

Long before I am 800 I will have memorized all the books I love now and be unable to re-read them, but fortunately by then people and aliens will have written plenty more new favourites, and I'll be re-reading them too.

Pablo Defendini
1. pablodefendini
I'm the same way, my initial read is quick and dirty, and I then go back to savor the book at a more leisurely pace. As for consistent repeat reads, I re-read Asimov's Foundation series and Sandman at least once every 18 months or so.
I also find that if I enjoy a paperback or e-book, I'll give away or donate it, and go out and get a hardcover edition for my permanent library. That usually triggers a re-read.
Chris McLaren
2. ChrisMcLaren
I have some comfort books, which I reread occasionally, every couple of years or so, but the rereads that really give me joy is when I can come to a book again, and have a completely different experience on a new read.

Gene Wolfe, for example, pretty much always rewards rereading.

Or, sometimes it's that my life has changed in some way, and the experience is totally different. The best example of this would be comparing the experience of reading Graham Joyce's Smoking Poppy as a young, single man, and then rereading it later as a parent. Same river, different man.
Thomas Perry
3. SirTomster
I tend to re-read a lot.  My comfort books.  Also I like to re-read books in preparation of the next book.  Currently re-reading David Weber's Off Armageddon Reef in anticipation of the next book to be released in a week.
I also tend to re-read when I am in a lull.  Cannot find anything that catches my eye.
paul wallich
4. paulw
The comfort books are nice. A very few books I will reread because I love the prose, but those I often dole out in bits because, well, I don't currently have the concentration for lots of really good prose.
Some of the old trash I love to reread (EE Smith) because it is so thoroughly, campily itself. Other books I've learned not to, because things I once was able to ignore about the author's presentation of the world now grate too harshly. I do wonder sometimes what it would be like to become thoroughly familiar with just a few books, as people used to be by necessity.
 Does anyone else deliberately avoid finishing books? I still have Winter's Tale on my shelf somewhere, about 4/5 read from 10 years ago,  but I know that if I turned the rest of the pages I would be disappointed. Either in the book itself, or in the fact that it was over.
Martin Sutherland
5. sunpig
I very rarely re-read, precisely because of that "too much new stuff to read" factor.  But back in the mid-90s I did re-read Zelazny's Amber series regularly.  I was playing a lot of the Amber role-playing game at that time, and the books were a constant source of inspiration for mischievous GMs.

I hadn't looked at them again for years, though, until early last month when I heard that Erick Wujcik, who wrote the Amber RPG, had died.  I was in the middle of a serious work crunch, not sleeping much, and not in the mood for starting a new book.  All I wanted was something to pick up and unwind with at the end of an evening.  I grabbed Nine Princes In Amber, and started back on the journey.

On the first page Corwin (the hero) wakes up with amnesia.  He spends the first half of the book slowly piecing together fragments of his memory, and making his way back to Amber, the centre of things.  I found it amusing how this mirrored my own experience of reading the story:  I had forgotten most of the details, and every chapter brought new revelations that clicked into familiar place in my head, just as they did for Corwin.  It was fittingly meta.

I don't think that re-reading is something I will do often, but the pleasure of going back over the Amber series has definitely warmed me to the possibility of doing it every now and then.  We have just moved house, and in the process of packing and unpacking our books, I noticed a few other series I would like to revisit:  Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars, Frederik Pohl's Gateway.  And then there's my whole Bob Shaw collection which requires extensive re-reading and analysis at some point...
Jim Rion
6. JimR
WOw, I am the exact opposite when it comes to rereading pace.  My first read is usually pretty slow and leisurely.  Then, if I liked the book, I'll reread it again, this time faster, getting to the good bits asap.
If I LOVE a book (Dune, Black House, Shogun...) I'll sometimes just pick it up and open it at a random place and read for a bit, cause I know the story well enough that just a taste brings it all back to the foreground. 
Chris Sullins
7. chrissullins
I find that re-reading a book is a completely different experience from the initial read. It's a trade-off between the sharp shocks and realizations of the first read, and the deeper understanding and connections of subsequent reads. The best books can be re-read tens of times and each time result in a fuller understanding of how individual parts link into the whole. Even with lesser books, re-reading can give a better picture of exactly what works in the story and why. Quite rewarding, to my mind.
Claire Eddy
8. ceddy
Oh darn you, Jo.  I am reminded that the summer is almost over and I have yet to do my annual dance of joy and reread ALICE IN WONDERLAND...
Jamie Grove
9. jamiegrove
Like ceddy I have a few annual dances... At the moment, I am re-reading John Steinbeck's Cannery Row and D.H. Lawrence's Twilight in Italy.

By the way, it would be nice to have a subscribe to comments button here too so that we can keep up with all the great things people say about such wonderful posts. I can't wait for this site to open proper so that I can Stumble posts like this.
Rich Rennicks
10. RichR
I'll echo JimR (no relation) on rereading brief chunks -- I do that all the time. Especially for something long and involved (the Greatwinter Trilogy/Series and Wheel of Time lately). I'll go in search of favorite bits rather than carve out a couple of weeks of reading time to plow through everything. The nagging voice of the great unread gets pretty hard to overcome otherwise.
Benedict Leigh
11. Benedict_Leigh
I read fast and re-read almost everything (with the exceptions being books I could hardly read the first time round - I still regret paying money for A State of Disobedience by Tom Krautman recently as it looked interesting).

There are some books I turn to when I'm down, and that I read at least once every couple of months (even if it's only on the bus on the way to work). For me any of the Vorkosigan books, especially Memory, are reliable favourites, as are any of the Laundry series (I was happy to see another here).

I also like to read all the previous books of a series before reading the newest one (a reason I'm anticipating the last Wheel of Time book with a view to taking a weeks holiday to re-read everything before I start on the next one.
Mary Mark Ockerbloom
12. Mary Mark Ockerbloom
I used to read "Something Wicked This Way Comes" every October, because it so perfectly evoked the feeling of fall -- it's a brilliant book.

I love to reread well-written books and notice all the bits that I didn't realize the full significance of, the first time through. When a book is really well done, the second read-through can definitely deepen the experience. Bujold's Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls were like that.

And then of course, there are the ones I just reread for fun, because I want to spend time with an old friend.
Soon Lee
13. SoonLee
I re-read but only a small number of books that bear up to repeated reads. It's very much a comfort book thing but also to re-live the joy that a really well-written book can bring. The only book I re-read with any regularity is Roger Zelazny's "A Night in the Lonesome October" which I read every October.
David Dyer-Bennet
14. dd-b
There are two kinds of people in the world, those who divide everything into two groups, and those who don't. :-)

I'm probably in the first group, though I try to fight the tendency.

I've gotten a lot more out of books by rereading them. I still reread Doc Smith, and Dune, and Heinlein, and Tolkien. And now some Bujold, and Kagan, and Price, and Griffin. I haven't made an application to extract statistics on this out of my booklog, but I probably should.

Also, sometimes I'm not able to face a book that *might not be good*. Rereading is one of the best defenses.
David Dyer-Bennet
15. dd-b
Why SF people reread; at least the ones my age.

We discover the books with the rocketships on the spine in the library (or maybe it was an atom at yours?). We read them. We love them. We run out of them. We start rereading them.

Then we move to another house / school / town, and get a *different library*. It has *different* books with rocketships on the spine. We read the *new books* and are terribly excited.

Then we go back to reread an old favorite, and *it's not there*. This is why SF readers don't bring books back to the used bookstore for store credit.

(Yeah, I know, it didn't happen to all of us like that, it didn't even happen to all of us at all. But I do think something very like this is why rereading is so common among SF readers at least of my age.)

(Speaking of my age, does anybody else find it kind of amusing that the age choices here are "13-18" and "19 and up"? Those are important legal boundaries for online stuff, but it still amuses me.)

(I'm 53 for a couple more months.)
La Tlönista
16. tlonista
My first read is fast, clumsy, and passionate; I miss important bits and get the overall tone. If it stands up to many re-reads, I buy it, and get to know it over the years, dog-earing, memorizing.

It's rare that I only read a book once, and not finishing one at all is even rarer.
paul wallich
17. paulw
This is why SF readers don't bring books back to the used bookstore for store credit.

Luckily not so in my town. I came to learn a lot about the tastes and interests of the people who read SF around here (and probably they about me) by what they took back to the local used book store and what they kept. Of course it lost its lease, and the local new-book stores have eclectically abysmal selection.

I think that for whatever reason SF readers do have much more of a sense than readers of more, uh, mainstream genres that if they let go of a copy they may never see one again. Will ebooks change that sense of scarcity?
Liza .
18. aedifica
Jo, those are exactly the reasons I re-read--the only difference between my experience and what you wrote is that I don't necessarily remember where or when I first read something.

@dd-b: You've probably heard this one before, but there are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who know binary and those who don't. :-)
Dave-Brendon de Burgh
19. EvadBelBurgh
I also re-read (in the process of RRing The Wheel of Time and Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, and I RR my Star Wars collection every three years. :-)
Mary Mark Ockerbloom
20. crimed
I tend to re read some books, just about any Roger Zelazny book is a sure re read. A night in the lonesome October is indeed an awsome boook, Lord of light, and Creaturs of Light and Darkness as well. My Great book of amber is quite beat up at this point. I re read David Eddings the Belgariad and The Mallorian every 2 years or so as well. Jim Butcher's Harry Dresdon will also become a major re read series.
Janet Kegg
21. jmk
I'm one of those who doesn't re-read books and I feel a bit guilty about that. After all, the really good books deserve to be read and read until in tatters.

I've accumulated many books on my to-be-read shelves--and I continue to add more. I can't recall an instance of not being able to pick a book that appeals to me.

That said, I have re-read a few SF books, chiefly by Heinlein, that I first read 50 or so years ago. I enjoyed them. They are quick reads. I'm a rather slow reader--the slimness of yesteryear's books is something I miss.
Jason Jones
22. DocJones
I re-read a lot less than what I used to. Mainly because of the internet. In my younger, pre-internet days books were still relatively expensive and scifi hard to find in a smaller, rural town so I would be less likely to take a chance on an unknown author or series. Given a limited supply I would re-read books quite often. I lost count of how many times I read Dune.

In my opinion one of the greatest things about the internet is the way it helps introduce me to new things. Especially in the last few years when I started discovering author's blogs. (I'm looking in your direction Scalzi.) I would read a book by an author and start checking out their blog and when they mentioned other authors it would lead me to make new connections. Amazon recommendations are also useful for finding new stuff.

I do still re-read books occasionally but when my to-read pile is fairly large it's a lot harder. In fact, one of this weekends projects will be to straighten out my bookshelves. My wife has banned me from buying any new books until I get that done.
David Dyer-Bennet
23. dd-b
@Aedifica: You've probably heard this one before

Well, yes, but it's still good.

And generally:

I also don't remember the first reading of things particularly. I suspect the first reading isn't as much different from the later readings for me as it is for other people.

I don't have much of a to-read pile really; or rather it's mostly things I'm not that interested in reading. The field seems to have mostly moved away from my interests, and there's less and less new stuff that really interests me.
Mary Mark Ockerbloom
24. rugmaker
i am a rereader and still have a very genoris bookshelf of unread books that i,m sure will be reread as well. ithink you get much more the second time through . people {including my bride }don,t understand this . .i don,t understand them . i love reading, we have nine children ,all but one read alot i,m working on him .
Sandi Kallas
25. Sandikal
I belong to a couple of online SF/F book discussion groups that choose books of the month. As a result, I have re-read several books. Most recently, I re-read "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and was really amazed at how much I missed the first time. This month, I'll be reading "Dune" for the third time. It's been at least 15 years since I last read it and one of my groups is discussing it next month.

I only re-read a book if it's a classic and I've heard someone mention it and I realize that I read it but don't remember it very well.
Mary Mark Ockerbloom
26. sylvia_rachel
You've described just about exactly why (though not necessarily what) I re-read. I am a re-reader; my husband is not. This may or may not bear any relation to the fact that I read very quickly while he reads quite slowly; it also may or may not relate to the fact that he cares a very great deal about plot whereas I care rather more about certain other things. Years ago I lost my copy of Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog on the subway, and was very upset, and we had this very odd conversation. "But you've already read it about ten times," he said. "Yes," I said, "but I was just getting to an interesting bit." "But you already know what happens." "Yes, but that's not the point ..." (I bought another copy, and have now read that one many times, too. But it isn't quite the same.)

It's so awful when a book doesn't stand up to re-reading (re-reading The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, which I loved as a child, was a truly dreadful experience); but then there's the joy of re-reading something you sort of vaguely remember as being all right, a reasonably good read, and discovering that actually it's absolutely brilliant and you just weren't old enough or experienced enough or in the right head-space, the first time, to recognize how brilliant it is.

Re-reading is also one of the great pleasures of being a parent. Just now, for instance, I am reading Roald Dahl's Danny the Champion of the World to my daughter, who is six and hearing the story for the first time, and it's as much fun seeing her discovering it as it is rediscovering it myself.

And sometimes, yes, you just really need a known quantity. A familiar face, as it were.
Mary Mark Ockerbloom
27. Nancy Lebovitz
I've only read The Good Terrorist once, but it attracted and repaid thought more than the average book. In particular, I remember figuring out that all the weird behavior by the protagonist had straightforward roots in her childhood.
Linden Wolfe
28. Lilith
I'm finding that I'm doing a lot less re-reading than I did in the past. This is partly due to having less time for reading these days, but also a recognition that I don't have enough heartbeats left to read every book I want to read.

There are so many fantastic new books coming out all the time that I simply don't have the time to re-read my large list of old favourites and keep up with the tide of new books. I currently have something like 50 books waiting to be read and I can guarantee by the time I finish those, I'll have bought lots more.

*sigh* I need to retire just to have enough time to keep up with my reading.
B. Roberts
29. briefgnome
There are 7 1/3 types of people in the world, if you are into fractions. If you are not, then you are one of the 1/3. And I'm keeping my eyes on you.

I tend to re-read quite a bit, but most books I just re-read certain parts here and there and that resaturates my memory enough to satisfy.
Paula Berman
30. dichroic
Except for duplicates, I only get rid of books if I am absolutely certain I will never reread them.

I get rid of very, very few books.
Igor Rendić
31. sandman
I've read "Slaughterhouse 5" at least six or seven times and I've read "Watchmen" and Sandman about as many times also. These are just examples. I like to re-read. A lot. Sometimes it's for the details that I've missed the first couple of times, but mostly it's for that comforting feeling of holding a volume in your hand and knowing that you're in for a good read.

My readpile is also getting larger by the week, no matter how many books I read from it. Disturbing. I think books sneak into my room while I'm sleeping.
JR Peck
32. stoolpigeon

I read Dune and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress at least once a year.  Have been doing so for some time.  I remember being in a used bookstore and the owner, without looking up, said, "If you bring stuff back you get store credit." Then he looked up and recognized me and followed it with, "Oh yeah - you're one of my sci-fi people.  They never bring anything back."

Mary Mark Ockerbloom
33. SF Lover
I recently started re-reading - I've re-read all of Silverberg's stuff from 1967-176 and lots of Delany, Zelazny and Simak and have enjoyed them a lot - often more than before. But then I re-read some classics - including a lot of Heinlein and Dune - and I found them really wanting (although I still love Double Star and Moon Is a Harsh Mistress). I am only an average reader and usually I don't re-read because there is so much new stuff that looks good, but as you say sometimes I want the comfort of something I know will move me - but usually it's only every 10 or 15 years never every year!
Mary Mark Ockerbloom
35. loppnisimadona
I do it on here..and even do it on the black/white board when i am teaching.. little embrassing ^.^:
What about you?

lovefilm uk


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