Fri
Apr 2 2010 2:26pm
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.

27 comments
Marcus W
1. toryx
I came from a similar background where books were rare and hard to come by, and so I spent a lot of my teenage years re-reading books.

Once I got away from home, however, and discovered the delight that is a used bookstore and realized just how much there is available out there I've pretty much stopped re-reads unless they're books I especially love, simply because there's always a new book to read that I haven't picked up yet.

Granted, I also read pretty slowly in order to savor the book (another result of my sparse childhood) so I'm always aware that I don't have nearly enough time to finish all the books I want to someday read.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Toryx: I do read a lot of new books too! But I read them knowing I will re-read them.

I do read fast though, and I always have.
Rob Munnelly
3. RobMRobM
Liked Lord of Light, Cetaganda and especially The Sparrow. Hmmnnn.
Chris Meadows
4. Robotech_Master
I can appreciate this.

The newest Honor Harrington book is coming out soon, and knowing Weber and Baen it will probably have a pack-in CD containing everything ever written in the Honorverse thus far (that will subsequently go up on Fifth Imperium for free).

Because it's been literally years since the last Honor book, and the books always build on what came before, I'm looking at the possibility of going back and rereading every word that's yet been written in the HH'verse, simply because I want to get the most out of this rare treat of a new Weber.

But…but I really don't want to! So many of those HH books were so over-the-top melodramatic, with the evilest evil villains continually tormenting the poor benighted suffering heroes, that it was hard enough getting through them the first time. But they had enough good elements that I still was unable to stop. Bah.

Maybe I should just shrug and read the wikipedia synopses.
Christine Evelyn Squires
5. ces
Growing up, there were rarely any books in my home - the only books that were in my home were mine. So the library saw a lot of me! And consequently, I was always reading books "too old" for me - my age level books were always so silly. So I kept a dictionary & thesaurus by my side, to look up words I didn't know. And consequently, in the 9th grade (I was 13) my reading skills tested at 2nd year of college level.

I do re-read books though for 2 reasons: (1) a new book in a series has been released after a long draught, so I start at the beginning of the series to reacquaint myself with all that's happened; (2) if there's nothing new in the store that I want to read.

But I'm also stubborn - if I don't like a book, I read it anyway to the end. Only once in the past 5 (maybe even 10) years have I stopped reading a book I didn't like. I can't even remember the book's name now. And in the past 2 months one of those books I didn't like I finished anyway. Then I read the next book in the series - and it was wonderful! So, it pays off to finish those books you don't like. Sometimes.
Ben O'Connell
6. benjamin_oc
Have you written about The Sparrow anywhere? I love the book, so I'm curious to read your thoughts on it.
Steve Oerkfitz
7. Steve Oerkfitz
I love The Sparrow also. Would rather be struck blind than have to read an Honor Harrington book again.
Steve Oerkfitz
8. tariqata
Robotech_master: my mom and I were just talking about exactly this last night. I concluded that while I'm not sure how authors like David Weber manage to incorporate the crack into their writing ... but somehow they do.

I reflexively re-read L.E. Modesitt's Recluce books every time I run into a new one, too, even though on every pass the stilted writing bugs me more and more.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Benjamin_OC: I've written about The Sparrow on usenet, but the posts may have spontaneously combusted in the intervening time. My problem with it is that the (human) characters are nothing like people -- they do not act in the kind of ways that people act or make the kind of assumptions people do. That's what makes it something I wouldn't touch again -- I can forgive all sorts of plot and worldbuilding stuff, but when people can't write plausible characters I'm not going to bother. No human being finding a torture victim being raped says "Oh what a slut", which is essentially what every single person in the ongoing time thread of The Sparrow does. You might be able to convince me that there's someone so lacking in compassion and common sense that they'd think that, but not that everyone would. Stuff and nonsense.
Sandi Kallas
10. Sandikal
I very rarely re-read anything, especially books I hate. One hated book that I did re-read was Stranger in a Strange Land. It's such a revered work, I thought that maybe I just wasn't in the right frame of mind when I read it twenty-plus years ago. Well, two decades and middle-age didn't make it any better for me. However, instead of having that knee-jerk "I hate it" reaction, I can at least now articulate what I dislike about it. And, I can even concede that it starts off well, even if it ends horribly.
Alex Brown
11. AlexBrown
In high school I remember feeling like I read voraciously, but I honestly can't remember hardly anything I actually read (except Nick Hornby, Alex Garland, and Chuck Palahniuk). I do remember starting a lot of books and dropping them after a few chapters because I didn't get them and didn't have the patience or understanding to try and figure them out (Dickens and Chabon being the biggest ones).

Now that I'm older I find myself reading books and feeling like they're vaguely familiar and realizing half way through that it was one of those in high school that just didn't connect or that passed like sand in a sieve through my brain. And, oddly enough, now I seem to never find books that I don't want to read. Maybe I'm just more selective now and am only reading stuff by authors that interest me, but I haven't had to force myself to read anything since college.

I think, like you, I'm more willing to slog through something and find something valuable in it which, to me, makes it more interesting. It may not be my favorite book by any means, but I still like it if there's something there to chew on.
Pasi Kallinen
12. paxed
I've always has an "infinite" supply of books; my mom took me to the local library when I was very young, and I got my own library card when I was 5. I also read practically everything in the school library on my first years at school.

(Thank $DEITY for public libraries!)
Steve Oerkfitz
13. Lynnet1
I re-read books all the time, because every time I read a new book it's a coin toss- I might love it, I might hate it. Since I usually read in order to decompress, I usually read books that I know I like. I don't want the stress of reading something new and discovering that I hate it, or getting halfway through and having horrible and depressing happen.

For several years I didn't read any new (to me) books that I particularly liked. The few that I thought were not awful (but not great) were being nominated for and getting all kinds of awards. This did not encourage me to take chances on new books. If that was the best the genre had to offer, I would stick with the books I knew, thanks.

Then I read The Name of the Wind, and loved it, and that encouraged me to seek out book review blogs and make an effort to read more new books. I read a lot more new books now than I ever have before. But I still reread a lot, too, because sometimes I need to know that the book I'm starting is one that I'm going to want to finish.
Steve Oerkfitz
14. dmg
So there I was, Jo, re-reading Roger Zelazny's, THIS IMMORTAL. Say what you will about the book ("minor Zelazny", "not deserving of the Hugo" etc), *I* was enjoying it. Published 45 years ago, it reads like a breath of fresh air -- Zelazny could turn a phrase. Moreover, I had to pay attention because he littered paragraphs with lines that seemed throw-away but I would bet are anything but. (I do not remember the story at all from my original reading!)

But then arrived Rebecca Goldstein's new novel. She is an absolutely brilliant woman, and her books show that quality. The new novel's ostensible topic is one of importance to me, and so I began the book, thinking I would merely dip my toes into her rich waters...

100 pages later, and Zelazny is placed on simmer. All of which means I am not a very good re-reader. I admire your strength of character.
Sandi Kallas
15. Sandikal
I think the next thread has to be books you loved the first time around, but realized was bad on a re-read.
p l
16. p-l
Thanks for the well thought-out answer, Jo! Like some of the other commenters, I grew up with easy access to a big library, which shaped my cognitive biases about reading somewhat differently. I grew up thinking of literature as an infinite although poorly lit space. So the problem for me is selecting the right book rather than fully exploiting a limited selection.

I have my own neuroses about reading as a result. Because life is finite and literature is, for all intents and purposes, infinite, choosing a book feels to me like a zero-sum game. Because I decided on a whim to read The Magus this week, the whole queue was pushed one step farther back, and as a result there is one more book (or two short ones) that I'll never get a chance to read.

Unless it's a favorite book - The Glass Bead Game, Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand, etc., I don't usually "get a chance" to reread.
Steve Oerkfitz
17. Thomas Lindgren
I loved Lord of Light the first time I read it, even if it felt slighter on a recent revisit. Zelazny will always be the guy who knew how to write the epic stuff.

The Sparrow (shudder). At best, I'd call it a straight faced black comedy. First appreciate the previous comments; then savour how the central hook dissipates into vapid nothingness at the end of the book; finally go back and try listing the comedy of errors as the blockheads traipse about the alien world. "Hey, we're locked out of the car!"
Ian Gazzotti
18. Atrus
As others here, I lived pretty close to not one but three public libraries, so the concept of a limited amount of available books was -and is- completely alien to me. Like p-l, my problem at most was one of too much choice and not enough direction.

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.

I can never do this. If I'm not enjoying a book for whatever reason, I put it down, and maybe pick it up again days, months or even years later; if I force myself to read it, I'll just end up hating it (one of the reasons I don't read much Russian lit is that, when I was 12, I was forced to read Anna Karenina for school in little under two weeks; that burned a huge NEVER AGAIN in my brain which I'm still having trouble shaking off). By putting them aside the first time, instead, I grew up to love Gormenghast, the Silmarillion, and other books which are now among my favourites.
individ ewe-al
19. individ-ewe-al
I'm completely the opposite, I basically don't reread, because when I was a kid I was always overwhelmed by how many new things there were out there, rather than afraid of running out of books. Nowadays I occasionally reread my absolute favourite books.

Very, very rarely I do go back to a book that I didn't like, because my baseline love of reading is so high that sometimes I just can't believe that something wasn't enjoyable to read and I go back to check. If I hate a book, then no, I don't reread it, but that rarely happens. If I just don't quite get why everyone loves it so much, curiosity can overcome my normal impulse to want new material. (Of course, I'm not paid for reviewing things, which makes a difference.)

Regarding The Sparrow, I really wish it were a better book, because it is doing several incredibly original things. A version of that that was actually well-written would be a real gem, and it's frustrating.
Jo Walton
20. bluejo
Individ-ewe-al -- I'm being paid for writing these posts because I re-read, not re-reading because I'm being paid for it. Though I am re-reading more because of this. I feel like I'm goofing off when I read something new.
Steve Oerkfitz
21. Jinian
I always feel so validated when you say you don't like Lord of Light, as I completely failed to even force myself all the way through it.

Right now I'm buying more new books than I ever have in my life, and still rereading tons. Mostly what I return to are the very beloved books, or those that contain a particular mood that I want to experience again. Or stuff people have reviewed recently. (I was surprised to note on my way to Gaudy Night that Harriet in Strong Poison isn't actually a person, but she promptly popped into 3D in Have His Carcase. GN is of course brilliant, a prime example of getting more out of a book on the reread, because I'm an academic now myself.)
Steve Oerkfitz
22. HelenS
As others here, I lived pretty close to not one but three public libraries, so the concept of a limited amount of available books was -and is- completely alien to me.

Oh, see, I never feel that way, no matter how many books are actually available to me. The question is whether I can *find* a book I want to read. I very often can't, even when it's not at all a question of having read or tried to read everything on the shelves. Being able to find something to read has always had far more to do with my own state of mind than the availability of books. It's just like the way one goes round and round a perfectly well-stocked grocery store unable to think of anything to get for dinner.
Steve Oerkfitz
23. William Hyde
You already knew somebody was going to say it, so I'll be the one. I quite liked "A Laodician".

Why? Well, it's been three decades now so I can't be very specific, but I found it to be light, comic, and easy reading. Perhaps it made the ideal contrast to "The Mayor of Casterbridge" which I had just finished.

Circumstances perhaps favoured it. I read it in the small hours, downstairs in the only cool room in the house in which I boarded, listening (at a whisper volume) to the very few records I had (mostly Vaughn Williams' earlier pieces and some Grieg - picked up for 50 cents each at a scholarship sale). After the day's work and perhaps evening's exercise, I doubtless wasn't very analytical in my reading.

Or maybe I just like Hardy.

William Hyde
Steve Oerkfitz
25. dmg
I am not an especially slow reader, Jo; nonetheless, my reading pile looks more like pilings for a nuclear bunker. Which explains why I get to 'meet' you only now.

Yes, I finally read your fascinating interview in LOCUS (2.10). I opened the magazine and wondered who the beautiful woman in the bucolic setting was... until my eyes finally strayed to the left. I hope the interview pleased you, as much as it interested this reader.

Best wishes,
individ ewe-al
26. individ-ewe-al
Coming back to this read I realized that my comment about being paid could have come across as rude. I didn't mean it that way at all, and I'm sorry. I meant to express admiration that you're so good at reading you get paid for it, not somehow imply that you're a hack contaminated by filthy lucre. It makes a lot of sense to me that the extent to which you reread contributes to you being the best reader I've ever met. I do apologise for expressing nearly opposite of what I meant.
Lexie Cenni
27. LexieGirl
There are some books I didn't like when I was younger, okay quite a few (and most of them school mandated) that I've been trying to re-read now. My tastes and reading temperament has changed, so I figure its worth seeing if I *do* enjoy those books or if they truly are that irritating to me.

Books that I liked when I was younger, unless I've re-read them in the last 6 years, I try not to re-read and just keep them as 'happy memories'. I did that a couple times, with Carli Laklan (I think that's how you spell her name) books and to my horror I realized I did *not* enjoy these one bit. It soured my memories and I had to get rid og the books.

My tastes/trends/temperaments seem to change every 5-7 years, though I have so many books now that I've picked up on the off chance of enjoying one day that its more a matter of finding a book I *have* read to re-read in my collection...
Steve Oerkfitz
28. Peter Kazmaier
Jo,

I very much enjoyed your post. I first found out about it when it was cited in the National Post.

I tend to re-read my favorites books over and over again because I find new ideas in them but your experience suggests perhaps I ought to return to ones long discarded.

I cited your post on my blog. If you're interested ...
http://peterkazmaier.com/?p=323

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