Opinion

Why Re-Read?

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Wanna see a magic trick? First, observe there’s nothing up my sleeves, right? Okay, now watch me magically split the reading audience of this article in two.

I often re-read books.

What’s just happened is that, I wager, a bunch of you have shaken your head sadly and thought of your various reasons for why you don’t re-read books. There are so many books to read! Who has time to backtrack? Or, re-reading wouldn’t be the same, now you know the story and what happens, the power of the piece might be gone. Or perhaps reading something was magical and powerful, and you don’t want to revisit for fear of losing that wonderful feeling.

Those of you who do re-read might have just regarded the past few paragraphs with complete bafflement. Certainly, I would’ve done. It’s only very recently that it’s occurred to me that there are people who don’t re-read books time and again. I thought everybody revisited books.

I re-read endlessly, and I think of it as nothing different than reading a book for the first time. I maintain a reading journal of books I’ve read and how long it’s taken me, and there are many titles repeated throughout the journal. I don’t differentiate them. I think it’s as completely integral to the reading process as the first time through a book.

Watchmen-2I’m always amazed at what some books can give me on the second re-through, or the third, or however many times I re-read it. Particularly early on, I find that the re-read can be rewarding because you aren’t trying to figure out who all the characters and what’s happening. You know already. Thus grounded, you can explore the details and nuances of the story, perhaps notice some of the early connective tissue tying into later in the book which you missed before. An example of this is the remarkable Watchmen by Alan Moore — or nearly anything by Moore, really. I’ve re-read Watchmen a dozen times, and each times I notice new resonances, new places where the story comments on its own other parts, new brilliant artistic details or character moments.

Sometimes it’s not the books that change, though, it’s you. If I’m the same sort of person I was five years ago, then I’m failing utterly at being alive. (Mark Twain said it best: “Consistency requires me to be as ignorant today as I was yesterday.”) Between one re-read and another, I’ve grown and lived…but I’ve also expanded my vocabulary and read countless other books, seen films, listened to music, had new thoughts, and done new writing myself. All of that is there, lurking just offstage, when I step back into a book for a revisit, and all of it changes how I view that book. Perhaps I get a reference I didn’t get before (or didn’t even notice), or perhaps I find that the book no longer agrees with me…or perhaps I appreciate the book as I never did before. It’s fascinating to read authors like Lois Lowry or Ray Bradbury as a youth, and then revisit them as an adult. Literature is not like your hometown, which you revisit to find smaller and less impressive now you’re an adult. Returning to books later on has given you tools to dive deeper and stay down there longer. (Not all books, of course. Some disappoint. The ones that don’t, though, are gold.)

I certainly understand the frustrations of those who don’t re-read because there’s so much to get through and they want to keep moving forward. I become actively irritated when I go into a library or big bookstore because there are so goddamn many books I haven’t read yet, and I’m going to die of old age before I’ve even scratched the surface! Where is the time for re-reading?

I find the time. Perhaps it’s an issue of temperament, I don’t know. I am inclined to re-read, I am likely to re-watch movies I love, and I tend to pour through albums I love until I know every word and chord change.

starting point

Some books I re-read aren’t puzzles I’m unraveling or revisiting at all, some are just old friends. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read American Gods by Neil Gaiman, but I suspect I’ve read it a hundred times or more, no joke. I am so familiar with it, I can dip into it at a random point and read on.

The re-reading of the book is a tradition, and occasionally an act of solace…which is another reason I re-read some books, for comfort or courage or just cheering up. I have a massive book about Hayao Miyazaki which tells me “Keep working. Make it matter. The rest will tend to itself.” I’ve read my copy of Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury until it’s coming apart, because now and then it tells me “cheer up. Things are pretty neat.” Some people gain solace from the Bible. I’ve got the rest of the library catalog to bolster my spirits.

Some books don’t need re-reading, except for fun. I seriously doubt revisiting a Nicholas Sparks novel is going to give you new, deeper meaning. That being said, for fun isn’t so bad a reason for anything, really.

So I say, if you don’t re-read, well that’s fair enough, and I can see why…but perhaps don’t dismiss it. It can be a useful tool. You might visit an art gallery more than once, or re-watch a complicated film, or ask a professor to repeat a knotty piece of information. Why not take that same desire to understand a little further and re-read something once in awhile? It might be fun. That being said, for fun isn’t so bad a reason for anything, really.

(There, see? You’ve re-read something. You’re mine now.)

About Peter Damien

Peter Damien writes and publishes a lot of short stories and a lot of articles. He lives in the Seattle area with his wife and two boys, and his house is made almost completely out of books at this point. He nervously suspects he would be the first to go in a slasher movie. You can find him on twitter @PeterDamien.