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How I Love Books and Why I Re-Read

Many people read to improve themselves, or to learn things. I read because it’s usually the most fun I can have at any given moment.

Rereading-AwesomeAs to why I re-read, well, I do that because it’s fun too. I refuse to be made guilty about this. Yes, re-reading means I won’t read all the books in the world but I’m not going to do that anyway. I’m also not going to visit everywhere in the world or make friends with all the people in the world. It’s a pity, but there it is, life is finite, and as I’m reading for fun, I’m going to read what I enjoy reading, in the way I enjoy reading it.

Sometimes I want something new. Other times I want something where I know what I’m getting. Sometimes I want a new relationship, other times I want to come back to something I already love.

My ideal relationship with a book is that we will meet as strangers. I won’t know anything about it beyond the name. I might have been eagerly awaiting its arrival, or we might have met unexpectedly. I might have picked it out of a crowd on impulse, or we might have been fixed up by friends. I’ll open the book in complete ignorance, read the first word with everything new and unspoiled, and I’ll fall into a deep trance of enchantment. For as long as it lasts, I want nothing but to be absorbed in its charms. I’ll alternate between reading fast, because I want to know what happens, and slowing down because I don’t want to come to the end. I’ll read funny bits aloud to my husband. I’ll cry at moving bits. I’ll admire the prose and yet rush over it. I’ll care about the characters. I’ll dream about them. Exciting surprises and narrative twists will come to me unexpectedly to surprise and delight me. Eventually the book will come to a climax where everything will end in a way that feels entirely satisfying but which I couldn’t have predicted.

And then I’ll love it forever.

Not monogamously, you understand, but forever.

little-gilr-lots-booksI suppose if I were a monogamous reader I’d just read the same book over and over. And occasionally I do finish a book and turn instantly back to the beginning to read it again right away. It’s rare. I think I’ve done that half a dozen times in the last half-century. (THE LORD OF THE RINGS, Vernor Vinge’s A FIRE UPON THE DEEP, Guy Gavriel Kay’s THE FIONAVAR TAPESTRY, C.J. Cherryh’s CYTEEN, Marge Piercy’s SUMMER PEOPLE, and Ada Palmer’s THE WILL TO BATTLE — forthcoming from Tor in 2016.) I don’t think I’ve ever read anything three times in a row — maybe Tolkien, I don’t remember, I was only eight. After I’ve finished something I don’t usually want to read it again instantly. I want to read something else, something different. I want to a new story, or anyway, a different story.

But after some time has gone by — varying amounts of time, but usually about a year — I *will* want to read that book again. After all, I loved it. I want to revisit it. I want to sink back into its world, hang out with its characters, follow along with its story. This second read will go more slowly, because the book won’t surprise me any more. Instead this time I’ll have a new pleasure of seeing the things I missed last time, picking up the clues I didn’t notice, seeing early developments that just looked like incidents that were really significant beginnings of later events. I’ll truly appreciate the prose this time, because I won’t be in a hurry to find out what happens. I’ll still laugh at the funny bits and tear up at the sad bits, but it won’t surprise me any more. In some ways this second reading of a book is the best, the most enjoyable. It’ll still be new enough that I’m not familiar with everything about it. that there’s still some process of discovery going on. But I’ll know that I can trust it, I can relax with it, I know it isn’t going to lead me on and then betray me. I’ll gain a deeper understanding of it, and I’ll thoroughly enjoy the process. I often think of this second reading a year later as completing the process of reading — a book I’ve only read once is a book I haven’t really read at all.

Book-LoveAfter that, I’ll read the book every year or so. Over time the book and I will settle down like an old married couple. It will become more and more familiar and less and less surprising. I’ll see any flaws really clearly, because they’ll show up in repeated re-readings. But it’ll also become more beloved, and I’ll be more inclined to forgive it the flaws. Eventually I’ll have read it so many times I almost know it by heart and it will become hard to read. I won’t be able to sink into it without seeing the end of the paragraph when I’m still at the beginning. Then I’ll read it less often, though I will still think about it fondly, until there’s been quite a long time when I haven’t read it. Then something will remind me of it and I’ll pick it up again, and it will be long enough since I’ve read it that it will delight me all over again. Some phrases will be engraved in my memory. Some characters will feel like they are old friends. But memory is fallible, and people change, and in a book I thought I knew so well, after all this time there will be surprises again.

Of course, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes I like a book the first time I read it but on re-reading I’m bored with the same old glamour now I can see through all the tricks. Books that count on plot twists and unanswered questions can be like this — the first breathless read is fine, but on subsequent readings there’s nothing there. Other times what I call “the Suck Fairy” has been at a book between readings — I start to notice issues that just slid by me on my first time. This isn’t really because the book has changed but because I have, though it doesn’t always feel that way. And some books just don’t hold up to re-reading — they get worn out and I get tired of them.

But ideally, and this is what I always hope for when I pick up a new book, I’ll fall deeply in love and we’ll be together forever.

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9 Comments

  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    Absolutely fantastic post, Jo. I re-read a book for the first time recently (Lies of Locke Lamora) for Gollancz’s new read along project and I was really hesitant to do so. Why would I re-read a book when there are so many others out there I was yet to discover? What I found was that because I knew why was coming I could really appreciate the subtler plot elements and, because I already knew the World, focus on the story more than the exposition. I found the experience thoroughly rewarding and am actually set to re-read a couple more titles for Gollancz this year that I’m now REALLY looking forward to 🙂

  2. Avatar SunnyReads says:

    I have a handful of books that I pull out and re-read every few years or so. The Stand, by Stephen King, Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn, and Asimov’s Foundation novels are all books that pull me back periodically to re-experience them again and again, and I often find that I discover things on each reading that I hadn’t noticed before. Great post!

  3. Avatar Captain of the Guard says:

    Great post, i’m an avid re-reader!! I must’ve re-read Pratchett’s Guard books 5 or 6 times, the same with SM Stirling’s emberverse books. It is more or less a rule that i re-read a good book, if i only read it once it’s not that good! ( in my Eyes).
    Brilliant!

  4. Avatar ScarletBea says:

    “Yes, re-reading means I won’t read all the books in the world but I’m not going to do that anyway. I’m also not going to visit everywhere in the world …”
    I love this!

    I’m getting to the point of becoming extremely frustrated, because I want to re-read but there always seems to be a new book just around the corner, especially after joining the FF forum. This article has given me another incentive (and justification, see above) to re-read. Thanks!

  5. Avatar Jeff Seymour says:

    Wonderful post! There are several books I’ve been pondering re-reading lately (starting with Perdido Street Station, which I l loved but read on deadline), but I’ve been avoiding doing so in favor of taking on new things.

    You have now equipped me with the mental ammunition to do it anyway. Many thanks!

  6. Avatar Cheryl H says:

    Great post!! I’m not normally a re-reader and I’ve often wondered why. Now I know. Re-reading is for books I really love. My more recent re-reads: Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, Riyira Series by Michael J Sullivan, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and anything by Dorothy Gilman (love my old school Mrs. Polifax!). Sometimes I’ll listen in audio and then get the book. Or the other way around. That’s a nice way to catch things I might have missed the first time and re-experience it too.

  7. Avatar Anton says:

    Great post! Incidentally, I just finished What Makes This Book So Great, which I now realize was technically a reread, as I had read most of your posts on tor.com before.

    I confess that I don’t re-read as much anymore. My reading patterns changed when I became a bookseller. I’m constantly faced with enormous quantities of new books or books that aren’t new but that I haven’t read. Now, I admit I don’t want to read a large chunk of what is on the shelves, but what’s left is enough to occupy me for quite a while. That said, there are still some books I re-read, usually yearly. Master and Margarita is one of them, Good Omens is another. And Lord of the Rings. Absolutely Lord of the Rings.

  8. […] there are essays about it in the book, and you can also read Walton’s latest post about it on Fantasy Faction. I personally really like re-reading. I blame being a bookseller for the fact that I don’t do […]

  9. Avatar Mike says:

    Im currently re-reading the first two books of Mark Lawrence’s trilogy before I start reading the last book. I think that re-reading stuff is great because the experience usually varies, particularly as time passes. 😀

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