Revisiting Books

First, a note that I was feeling highly self-critical last week for not participating in Ada Lovelace Day, when I had such a great experience with it last year. I just didn’t have anything prepared or anyone in mind yet to write about. So imagine my joy to discover they’ve moved it to October this year! I’m not too late! It’s still Christmas Day! You, boy, go purchase that enormous goose…er, yes. Well. Now I just have to make good use of the 7-month extension, so I don’t end up rushing it out at the last minute. (Yeah…no bets, please!)

Another book I should probably read.

Do you ever feel guilty for re-reading a book, instead of using the time to read something new? “So many books, so little time,” as the tote bag says; and that being the case, how can we justify time spent re-reading anything? I heard a factoid a while ago that I have no factual back-up for, yet it rings true in a gut-check kind of way: That it would take a person fifteen years just to read the titles of all the books in the world. Or all the books in print. Or all the books printed in a year. It was something staggering like that. And while that could drive a devoted reader to despair–how will I ever read it all?–I found it liberating. If there’s really that much out there, well, I certainly can’t be expected to read everything that makes its way into print, no matter how beloved by the critics or the masses it may be.

I tend to be the readingest person a lot of people around me know, particularly among work acquaintances, and I sometimes feel a weird pressure to know and have read ‘everything’, because that’s the expectation people approach me with. I feel like I let them down when I haven’t read the one thing they’ve bothered to pick up this year. (Based on another factoid I have no actual data on, that the average American reads about one book a year. Gosh, I’m all about the sloppy evidence today!)

But if it’s not humanly possible to read everything, well, there’s that pressure off. I feel bad, sometimes, for getting as absorbed in genre fiction as I do, instead of reading ‘proper literature’, as if I’m only impersonating a well-read person. But hey, who’s to say I would ever get to Tolstoy or Proust, even if I devoted myself to the classical Western canon exclusively? If it were possible to read everything, I would feel pressured to do so; as it is not, I feel a good bit freer to read what pleases me, and leave the rest to history. Whew! I was really dreading Ulysses.

More than that, some books reward a second or third read. Look at what happened between my first and second reads of Moon Tiger. The story revealed so much more on the second read; it took on deeper meanings and broader dimensions. The book didn’t change between readings, but I did, and it made a huge difference to my understanding and enjoyment of the story. Perhaps it’s like driving to a new place: the first time you do it, you’re focused on reaching the destination. The next few times, you can look around a bit more at the scenery. Perhaps bits of the story tucked themselves into my subconscious after the first read and played around, taking on new faces and funny costumes, ready to leap out on second read and surprise me. Perhaps, like stepping into a river, it’s not possible to read the same book twice–although it’s you who are constantly flowing into new shapes and directions, not the book. It says something about how much the reader brings to a story, how much reading a book is a collaboration between reader and author.

We sense this on some level, I think. We want our friends to love the books we love, and we’re more than disappointed when they don’t: we feel a little rejected, as if we’ve had an argument with them. Or maybe it’s that we feel alienated, because we realize the books are the same; it’s the readers who must be different–possibly more different than we realized. It shakes our sense of affinity–but should we let it? If we get different results from reading a book twice, how much more of a difference should we expect from two different readers? No matter how well we know someone, we can’t know everything they bring into a reading experience–we barely understand what we’re contributing when we react strongly to a story, good or bad. This is one the great powers of books: to teach us something about ourselves. If we examine why we react to the story as we do, if we compare differences in ourselves between readings of the same book, we can learn a lot about what’s going on. So a book we love, a book we return to again and again: it’s not really about the book, is it? It’s about what the book is reflecting to us of ourselves.

This entry was posted in Books and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Revisiting Books

  1. Ken... Just Ken says:

    I really understand the need to re-read books. Every few years since first reading it in the early ’80s I’ve re-read Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournell and each time something different sticks out in my mind, as if it were a recent addition to the book.

    Each time we read something it’s as if we’re essentially a different person, because of what we’ve recently experienced and where our state of mind is.

    I do re-read a lot of books, not just Lucifer’s Hammer (or lately listen to them on audiobook so I can keep busy with my hands while being entertained or enlightened and also keeping the terrible ringing in my ears [I’ve got bad tinnitus] at bay) and I often seek out the old favorites.

    It really does help that details of the books do fade in my mind so I’m not just looking forward to the next scene in the story, but enjoy the writing.

    Another reason for re-reading is using a beloved book as a palate cleanser after reading a disappointing book. You can just go on to another new book, but there’s a danger that the new book may also be disappointing and you might need the reassurance of an old literary friend that you know will comfort you and reassure you that not all books are, as they say, stinkers.

  2. kaizerin says:

    Oh yes, I agree with the idea of good/favorite books as palate cleansers! Reading a bad or disagreeable book makes my brain feel hot and prickly. Reading a good book feels like sliding into a cool pool of water, refreshing and effortless,with sun-glints of interesting ideas and artfully-constructed sentences. Very necessary after hiking through the desert of a terrible book.

  3. Keith Spears says:

    I like the book-as-palate-cleanser idea. That’s definitely how I use some of the genre fiction when it’s time for a break from the “I need to learn everything in Chapter 5” fare.

    One of the most interesting re-reads for me is Lord of the Rings. My last pass through was a couple of years ago, somewhat justified to separate the “real” story from the lovely movies. What I really picked up on during that re-read was age: The main hobbits are in their 50s, seasoned adults (even for hobbits) rather than youths. Seeing the main characters as people in my age group put a very different spin on things.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *