I find it difficult to trust people who don’t re-read books.
“I don’t have time” when it comes to reading is just as invalid as when it comes to writing. We all have the same twenty-four hours. How we choose to use them defines us. Writers choose to carve out writing AND READING time. People who want to learn, be entertained, and experience different points of view, read.
“But there are so many books!”
Right. There are over 10,000 books published in any given year, and I’m afraid to hunt down the statistics on eBooks that never got to print, but remain in digital format. No one can read everything. That’s why writers are constantly forced to spend so much time marketing instead of writing the next book — because they’re trying to give readers the information about their book, and connect to readers who might enjoy it. Or at least feel some sort of emotion from it.
No one can read everything that comes out. We pick and choose.
So WHY re-read?
Because a good book always offers something new with each re-read. There are reasons the “classics” stay in the canon and we have to read them in school, century after century, and then, hopefully, re-read them as adults, when we’re not carrying the resentment of being forced to read them years before.
There’s a certain amount of re-reading I do to learn rhythm, structure, pace — to work on my craft. That’s a different type of re-reading. If I’m struggling with a piece, be it a play, a screenplay, a short story, or a novel, I go to the best writers in that particular specialty and re-read them. Why do those pieces work so well? I break them down on both technical and emotional levels, and see what I can apply to my own work in terms of craft. Not the words themselves, but the structure, the rhythms, the craft.
That type of deconstruction is a special, learned skill. For this piece, I’m talking about re-reading for pleasure.
Good books make the personal universal and the universal personal. They make specifics relatable. The relationship between writer and reader is intimate in a way it can’t be when you’re watching something in a cinema or on DVD. A reader BECOMES one or more characters in the book, when the writer does his/her job properly, and experiences all the emotions and the actions in the book
When one re-reads a book, one might experience them again. Or the experience can broaden and one can learn something new.
Shakespeare: I re-read Shakespeare constantly, throughout the year. I also read work ABOUT Shakespeare, his time, and his plays, fiction related to Shakespeare and his plays, and essays by actors and writers who have been influenced by Shakespeare and his plays. I always learn something new about humanity. Viola’s yearning for Orlando while he years for Olivia is just as relevant today as it was in the sixteenth century. Hamlet’s decision to “catch” the King by using the Players makes just as much sense, and is the jumping off point for decades of mystery writers. The Scottish Play’s message of what happens to corrupt politicians is what we wish, now, more than ever, to happen. The history plays teach us (somewhat) history, but even more about the human heart.
For those of you who had a negative introduction to Shakespeare, start with Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. Yes, Asimov the sci-fi writer. He wrote one of the best books about where Shakespeare stuck to history and where he veered off and why. Read a chapter. Read the play it discusses. Whole new worlds will open out for you.
Another book I keep re-reading is A.S. Byatt’s POSSESSION. I bought it in hardcover the day it came out, and I keep going back to it. Why? Because I love books about finding lost manuscripts. I love how she wrote in the style of several different authors, and we get to read those lost manuscripts while her characters investigate them. She wrote a book about one of my ongoing fantasies — to find a diary or a lost manuscript — and ran with it in a unique, intelligent, and beautiful way. It reminds me of the path not taken — when I had the choice between becoming a literature scholar, and made the choice, instead, to go into theatre, both as a technician and a writer, although I never stopped writing prose. Even though the chances of my ever finding a lost manuscript are less than one percent — I like the fantasy of it. I like the details of how the scholars do their work. I like the reminder of the smell of old books and archives, the feel of the paper. I love entering the characters’ skins.
For a similar reason, I regularly re-read THE NORTHBURY PAPERS by Joanne Dobson. The journey she takes in finding and researching the manuscript excites me. It is a fantasy of mine that I get to live for the hours I read and re-read the book.
I re-read Mercedes Lackey’s Diana Tregarde series and Rosemary Edghill’s Bast series to remind myself where I was in New York City in the mid-1990s. A time before 9/11 destroyed so much, including belief that the world is a wonderful place and that people are basically good (this last election really proved the latter is not true at all). Those books remind me what I hoped and dreamed for, and the decisions I made in my career, why I made them, and they remind me that, although I chose a difficult path, I made the right decisions for me. Not just at the time, but also in the context. Even though I’m frustrated by certain things in my life now and in the process of changing them, those decisions that brought me here were right for me, and I’m glad I made them. When I get tired, when I get disheartened — these books remind me. Yes, those books are what is now called “Urban fantasy” and what was then called “paranormal mystery”. But they were rooted in a reality of time and community that was part of my daily life. They matter.
That’s why I re-read. To learn more, to experience more, to indulge and re-indulge in some of my favorite fantasies, and to remind myself of my journey.
Why do you re-read?
It’s a new year, and time for new books. Of course, when ISN’T it time for new books?
But there’s something wonderful about going back to books one has read before. Re-reading a book, especially years after the first read, can be a wonderful experience.
Sometimes, it might be a disappointment. You might have changed your perspective so much that you remember the way you FELT when you read the book, rather than the content of the book itself. But, often, you get more and more out of a book each time you go back.
I have books I consider my “comfort” books. They are books that I go back and re-read regularly. If I don’t get to them once a year, I go back every few years. They are books I enjoy so much that I often have more than one copy of them in the house, and I have most of them on my Kindle as well. This way, I am never without something satisfying to read.
Here are some of the books I keep re-reading:
THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPARE — William Shakespeare
I have adored Shakespeare’s writing since I was eight years old and first read the Scottish play. I keep going back to all his works. Many of my best theatrical experiences were on Shakespeare plays, including TWELFTH NIGHT and most of the history plays. When other teens were obsessed with rock stars, I was in Northumbria, visiting the places that Hotspur Percy lived. I never get tired of reading Shakespeare, and learn something new every time I re-read a play. I also love ASIMOV’S GUIDE TO SHAKESPEARE, written by, yes, THAT Isaac Asimov.
JANE AUSTEN — all of them
I regularly go back and re-read all six books. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and SENSE AND SENSIBILITY remain my favorites, although the others rotate in their place on my list. I always forget how funny she is.
POSSESSION by A.S. Byatt
I read it the day it was first released and it swept me away. I still re-read it once every two or three years, and it still takes my breath away — the breadth of styles included in a single book. The excitement of unraveling the mystery of a newly-found manuscript. I am not a fan of the movie at all, but I continue to adore the book.
HOGFATHER by Terry Pratchett
This is my annual Winter Solstice read. This brilliant satire on belief and non-belief enchants me every time. I’m a big fan of the Discworld books anyway, with MORT, GOING POSTAL, WYRD SISTERS, and MASKERADE as my favorites, but HOGFATHER is the I re-read every year.
LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott
I wanted to grow up to be Jo, although I wanted Laurie rather than the German professor. Even with its flaws, I still love this book. It gave me so much pleasure and so much hope when I was little. Louisa is one of my heroines. Of her other books, ROSE IN BLOOM and AN OLD-FASHIONED GIRL are also favorites. I also re-read her journals regularly.
COLLECTED POEMS -by Emily Dickinson
Again, I learn something new every time I read them. I find poetry experiential rather than theoretical. It’s hard for me to talk ABOUT poetry — I’d rather experience it directly.
TRIFLES by Susan Glaspell
I adore this play. Susan Glaspell is a wonderful author; a founding member of the Provincetown Players, and one of Eugene O’Neill’s earliest supporters, she was a fascinating and wonderful novelist in her own right. Again, every time I re-read this book regularly.
AN EXTRAORDINARY YEAR OF ORDINARY DAYS by Susan Wittig Albert
I’m a big fan of her China Bayles series, and I’ve also read most of her Beatrix Potter and Darling Dahlia books. But this, a diary of hers, is a book I go back to at least once a year, for both comfort and inspiration. You see how the details she notices, how the depths of her own feelings she explores, makes her such a wonderful writer.
SECONDHAND SPIRITS by Juliet Blackwell
This is her first Lily Ivory book. While I’m a big fan of the whole series, I keep coming back and re-reading this first book over and over again. It speaks to me, on many levels. I lived in San Francisco in the mid-80s — while modern SF is quite different, there’s still a resonance in the area — and in Lily — that I love.
A BOOK OF THEIR OWN by Thomas Mallon
This is a collection of diaries, throughout history. As a diarist myself, this book resonates on the whys and hows of keeping a journal that is personal and meaningful, and yet becomes bigger than the self. I go back to the extremely (overly) detailed diaries I kept in the 80s and 90s when I write material set in this time. As I age, the excerpts here give me a fresh perspective every time I go back to them.
THE NORTHBURY PAPERS by Joanne Dobson
The entire Karen Pelletier series is terrific, academic, literary mysteries. But this one is, by far, my favorite, where a copy of JANE EYRE leads to an almost-forgotten novelist. I never get tired of this, and I usually wind up re-reading the entire series.
THE DIANA TREGARDE MYSTERIES by Mercedes Lackey
Diana Tregarde was an urban fantasy heroine ahead of her time, back in the day when it was still called “paranormal mystery” (and what it’s about to be thus called again, since agents and publishers claim not to want urban fantasy, even though readers do). Diana Tregarde is one of my favorite protagonists and I love to re-read the series at least once a year. I have three of the re-issued books that came out a few years ago. I thought there were six, but I can only seem to find three. There’s also a wonderful short story in Lackey’s TRIO OF SORCERY, featuring this character. My other favorite Lackey character is Jennifer Talldeer, the Oswego private investigator; most of the stories featuring her are now out of print, too.
The Diana Tregarde books are: CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT, BURNING WATER, JINX HIGH.
THE BAST MYSTERIES by Rosemary Edghill
Again, I re-read the whole series at least once a year. I relate so much to these books. In some ways, it is a snapshot of what my life was like in New York City in the mid=90s, although I wasn’t as brave as Bast, and in theatre rather than a book designer. But a lot of the social interactions/decisions she has to make in the course of the series resonate strongly with me. Some of it reflects my life at the time; some of it reflects what could have happened, had I made some of the same decisions that Bast made. Plus, they’re damn good paranormal mysteries. The books in the series are: SPEAK DAGGERS TO HER, THE BOOK OF MOONS, and BOWL OF NIGHT. As I worked on this article, I discovered that, in 2014, a Kindle edition of Bast short stories and novellas were released as FAILURE OF MOONLIGHT. I have just purchased it, and intend to read it this week. I will let you know!
HEADLONG by Ron MacLean
I first read this as a contest entry, where I was a judge, and fell in love with it, giving it the winning slot. I later booked Ron to speak at the library where I worked, and recommended him to teach at Cape Cod Writers Conference. His short stories are terrific, too — basically everything he writes is wonderful. But I go back to HEADLONG because it is a perfect example of what I call a “social justice mystery”, where the politics are vital, but don’t get in the way of plot, character, and story. He never stands on a soapbox — he involves the reader in the journey, and gives the reader room to make decisions and judgment calls. Beautifully constructed and even more beautifully written, this is a book well work re-reading regularly. This is not a “comfortable” book to read, but it’s a “comfort book” because it’s so damn good I always learn from it when I return to it. it challenges me in the right way.
There are many books I re-read. I’m a big believer in re-reading, and am always suspicious of people who dismiss it (usually using the non-starter “I don’t have time to re-read”). A well-written book has something new to offer each time you visit with it, and comfort books are old friends who remain with you on the journey.
What are some of your favorite books and why? Please feel free to list them in the comments.