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, Proust 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.
This article was originally posted July 2008.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published a collection of Tor.com pieces, three poetry collections and thirteen novels, including the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. Her most recent book is Necessity. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here from time to time. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.