Saturday, February 4, 2012

Reading and Re-Reading: An Enquiry

Scott D. Parker

As he is wont to do frequently during my reading life, Neil Gaiman has performed a magic trick. He has conjured, in my mind a question: do we, as adults, re-read books?

Recently, he posted the text of a speech he once gave at an event called Mythcon. (Don't you just love how we can put the word "con" at the end of just about anything and it rings with a certain truthfulness?) His speech was some of his thoughts on C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and J. R. R. Tolkien and how he loves authors who have a certain number of initials in their published names rather than actual names. No, not really, but it struck me as funny just now.

In his speech, he talked about how he discovered those three authors in his childhood. He commented on reading and re-reading certain books--all seven Narnia books, the first two volumes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy--and how, when he came to write his own material, the language of these authors were already ingrained into his subconscious.

This got me to thinking about re-reading in general. In my own boyhood, I re-read a few things, but only major things are sticking to my adult memory. I re-read the Star Wars novelization, the Star Trek log books by Alan Dean Foster, and numerous adventures of the Three Investigators, a group I favored over the more popular Hardy Boys. Even though the animated film of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was released during my childhood, I never got around to reading the entire seven-book series until midway through this past decade. More than likely, I missed something I would have probably found useful had I been twelve when I read them versus mid thirties.

Why do we re-read books? One obvious answer is that we like the characters. I'm an only child and I lived a lot of time in my own head. I was the Fourth Investigator. I wrote myself into the Star Wars saga (Han Solo's nephew, I think it was). We may like the created universe and prefer to spend lazy weekend days there rather than the mundaneness of real life.

Now that I'm a "grown up"--and I use the term very lightly, usually referring to the number of years living as opposed to mindset--I don't re-read much, if at all. I've had the mindset to consider life too short to re-read anything, even things that I love. With so many good books out there, why bother spending any amount of extra time in one book when there are millions more to discover. It's almost as if reading is a race and, knowing I'll never get to all the books I want to read before I pass on, I've contented myself to skimming through my reading life like a thrown stone on a glassy lake. Sure I might touch the surface a few times, rippling here and there, but, ultimately, I'm going to stop moving and sink.

Honestly, the more I think about returning to shared universes, the more I realize that we moderns, if we don't re-read books, instead return to movies and TV shows. I'm starting to think that DVD ownerships and the ability to watch any TV series or movie over and over again is the modern equivalent to re-reading a book. I own a few specials DVDs--The Dark Knight, all seasons, to date, of Castle, Brisco County, Jr., The X-Files--that I'll return to, periodically, to watch. I get to watch the screen and enter again that warm embrace of nostalgia and familiarity bestowed by the stories, characters, and created universes.

There is, of course, a certain wistfulness about childhood re-reading when looked back at it from the point of view of an adult. Lazy days, which, at the time, probably seemed boring--remember how long a Saturday afternoon could be when you had nothing to do? Now, contrast that to a typical Saturday nowadays.--could be spent reading and re-reading any book you wanted to, immersed in the joy of a favorite, dog-eared book. Perhaps, what I'm feeling is that lost sense of wonder that can best be experienced as a child and during first discovery.

When was the last time a book truly opened your mind? Or made you have a physical, visceral reaction? I'll admit that when I read a book nowadays, I read with two minds. One mind merely wants to be entertained while the other is keeping a mental list of Things You Can Learn as a writer. While the former always manages to subvert the latter, the presence of the latter means I'm not truly consumed by the book. As a kid, I didn't care what writing tips I could learn from an author. I just wanted to be entertained.

When was the last time a book truly opened *my* mind? Well, being all analytical and compartmentalized in my thinking, I sub-divide my answer into two components. There are the mind-expanding books and there are the books from which I've had a physical reaction to, one in which I've simultaneously enjoyed the story but also took note of things as a writer. In the latter category, I present the following: Mystic River, The Dawn Patrol, The Shadow of the Wind, and Naked Heat. (Yes, that last is based on the Castle TV show and is the reigning book in the I've Re-Read It list. Why did I re-read it? To learn how "Richard Castle" structured his story.)

The former category consists of only two books: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville and Hyperion by Dan Simmons. That they are SF/F books lends some credence to my own personal belief that the genres of science fiction and fantasy are the best mediums to open one's mind. And here's where my skipping-stone analogy/too many books to bother re-reading mentality ruin me. Both of these books are part of a larger series. As wowed as I was by them, I felt compelled to stop living in their respective universes and charge forward. In some ways, I cheated myself, an idea I've only recently considered and lamented.

So, I pose the questions to you. Do you re-read books? If so, do you only re-read books you first read as a child, or do you re-read books you discovered as an adult? If you've returned to a book first read during childhood, did it stand up or did your adult sense ruin, in a way, the memory of the book? When was the last time a book truly opened your mind? What was it, and why?


Dana King said...

I don't re-read nearly as much as I used to, and it bothers me. There are several books and authors I'd like to re-visit. Some for the joy of reading them again, and some to see if my perception of the book has changed. It's a lack of time, mostly. After a full day of work, doing my own writing, taking care of household chores, trying to make a dent in the list of books I haven't read yet but want to, and discovering new authors, time to re-read is short.

I'm thinking of making myself re-read something every two or three months, just to do it. Re-reading an old favorite is comfort food for the mind.

Jay Stringer said...

I re-read. Not as often these days, because my increased writing leaves less time for everything else. But I re-read in the same way I re-watch films and tv.

WATCHMEN, WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES, WHITE JAZZ, STONE JUNCTION...these are things i return to, and learn from each time.

Spencer said...

Yup, I've been rereading every so often. Watchmen, Lee Child (Persuader and Killing Floor) even som 900 pagers by Neal Stephenson like Quicksilver. I've also reread Neuromancer and Snow Crash. I even made a blog post about it a while ago!

Ted Simon said...

I've only re-read two books, and it was in an attempt to study them. These were: Light in August by William Faulkner and Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Lately, novels have become the moment's entertainment rather than something timeless, The advent of electronic media, which I really like, has much to do with this.

Ted Simon