The Joy of Re-Reading

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?

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