Saturday, July 3, 2010

Re-reading books: Why?

Scott D. Parker

I'm an NPR geek. When America's birthday rolls around, the hosts and reporters of NPR team up to read the Declaration of Independence. As a historian, I get as big a thrill by Independence Day as I do about few other things. Each year, I enjoy marveling at our great experiment, how it's evolved, and how, despite flaws, we keep tinkering the machinery, fine tuning the engine that makes us all free.

When I hear the Declaration read aloud (or when I re-read it silently), a swirl of emotions run through me: pride, happiness, awe, wonderment, solemnity. I've gotten to the point where I stopped reading the Declaration at any time during the year, reserving for the first week of July the special feelings I get when I read the document.

I got to thinking about re-reading books in recent days. I'm in a science fiction book club (four members) and we each take turns picking a book for the month. Starting in July, we've all agreed to select a favorite book* and re-read it (or, in the case of a book picked by someone else, read it for the first time). When we agreed, I didn't realize that I would happen upon a roadblock: I don't want to re-read most books I read.

Pondering this, I started to list out reasons why. The most obvious reason is that I don't have enough time in this life to read all the books I want. When I die, the TBR stack will not be empty. Thus, why waste time re-reading something when there's another volume waiting to be opened for the first time? That's a huge driving force for me and one that usually wins any argument.

But there's a different part that also wins arguments. Surely I am not alone in investing in a book a certain level of emotionality (is that a word?) on books. (And this is a big reason why ebooks, for all the convenience, will never, truly kill the printed word.) For books that really strike a chord with me, I can remember all the details of my life that were then current when I read said book. Most of the time, those memories are a time capsule and I don't want to disturb them. Believe me, I've cracked a time capsule open before and the results usually don't measure up to the original reading. Thus, the entire experience is, for me, tainted.

In a few, rare times, when I re-read a book, the second go-round is purely for craft. I did this most recently (i.e., 2002) with Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River." But, this happens infrequently.

Oh, and most of this discussion applies to fiction books. I re-read non-fiction whenever necessary.

Do you re-read books? If so, why? Am I the only one who attaches a certainly level of emotion to a book? And, if so, does the second reading stand up to the first?

*Since I'm restricted--obviously--to SF for this book club, the last SF book that truly blew me away was Dan Simmons's Hyperion. I just read it last year and don't feel the need to re-read it. I'm more interested in its sequel. Thus, I'll likely pick a favorite book that, ironically, I never finished reading back in 1995: Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. Then again, I might just pick a Star Wars book. Who the heck knows. If it were open to mystery fiction, the choices would be much, much easier: Dawn Patrol, Money Shot, Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity, The Shadow of the Wind.


David Cranmer said...

I don't enjoy re-reads with the exception of Chandler, Hemingway, Doyle, and (don't groan Scott) Rex Stout. With Doyle and Stout it's the familiarity of the characters I like. With Raymond and Ernest it is how to write.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am rereading a book right now-THE THINGS THEY CARRIED but it's for my book group. I almost never reread and for just your reasons. Likewise I usually only read one book from a series. Too many new writers to try. I had a very different attitude 20 years ago when I read entire series.

Scott D. Parker said...

David - I'll never groan at someone else's favorite books. Not to worry. Forgot about Doyle. But I'm still in that place of having never read all of the short stories for the first time (shocking as it may seem). I've re-read the Adventures and the Memoirs but everything else I know not. And, as far as which book I'll pick on Tuesday, I'm giving serious consideration to selecting my fan non-novel SF story (it's a novellete, I think) of the past five years: Ted Chaing's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate."

Patti - I tend to read series like you with a few exceptions: Bond, Cool and Lam, Pelecanos, Lehane. My wife's the opposite: she finds a series she likes and plows through them all, in order. Only recently have I decided to abandon the "I have to read the book in order" mantra for many series. Currently, I'm reading the first Cool and Lam story but I've already read book #3 and I don't have #2. After this first book, I'm going to read whichever Cool and Lam books I have.

As far as the literary James Bond, have you been reading the series on The Literary Bond over at the Tainted Archive? Gary is up to the Diamonds are Forever today.

Dave White said...

I rarely--as in never to my recollection--re-read entire books. Though I do find myself flipping through old books to find certain passages or moments I really enjoyed to try and see how they worked. (Most recently SHUTTER ISLAND to compare that ending to the movie's.)

Dana King said...

I re-read, though not as often as I used to because I've learned of so many new (to me) authors I like. Sometimes I re-read for craft. Sometimes it's to see if I still feel the same about the book. Mostly it's because some books are like old friends to me, and I miss them if I don't spend time with them once in a while. Chandler only wrote six novels. If I want to hang around Phillip Marlowe, I have to re-read.

Elizabeth West said...

If I really like a book or series, I'll buy it and reread it incessantly.

The first time I read a book I'd rather just enjoy the story. Now that I'm writing my own, when I reread I find myself looking at plot devices, use of language, etc. It doesn't spoil things if I really love the book. I don't tend to notice a technique on the first go-round unless it's something glaring or meta.

I have a huge library of books but I've been too busy to go back and visit them lately.

Jay Stringer said...

I enjoy re-reading books that i like for much the same reasons i'll re-watch a movie, or re listen to an album.

That said, i don't have he time to write at the moment, let alone re-read a book.