Vladimir Nabokov once said: “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, and active and creative reader is a rereader.” Now, I love Nabokov’s work, and he was (to say the least) a strange guy who often spoke in well-calculated riddles, and he was also a bit sure of himself. Obviously, I’m not about to tell you that real readers have to be rereading books, because I don’t believe that.
But I do think that there are some books out there that are just made to be reread. These books are twisting, turning, meta miracles: books that can be appreciated even more on the second read, when you’ve reached the end and can double back, connecting clues and motifs, discovering small riddles and magical turns in the author’s work. They are books that reveal so much by the end that you want to go back and look for clues; they are books that ask so many questions that you want to search for the answers; they are books that are so meta, they don’t have traditional endings at all.
I’m a big fan of these strange, twisting reads, and you might be too. So if you love the annotations, the flipping back and forth, unfolding mysteries behind your hands, finding clues that you didn’t see on the first read — if you love all of those, then these books to reread are certainly for you.
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
If I could read one book again for the first time, it would be this one. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series is twisting and visceral, and its final volume left me breathless. The series pushes at and then smashes genre conventions; Jemisin breaks all the rules and writes a series of love, trust, revolt, and community. The third volume dives back in time to give us insight into this world, and the reveals of how the earthquake-ridden, apocalyptic world came to be will make you want to immediately turn to The Fifth Season and start the entire trilogy from scratch.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
I first read The Starless Sea for review; a month later, I decided to read it again. The bee motifs, the mythology, the side stories — all of them connect in their own strange ways, and once I knew some of the book’s mysteries, I wanted to consume it all again. This twisting book about an underground library of sorts, about Zachary’s sudden involvement in the battle over the library’s existence and accessibility to the outside world, is fascinating, twisting, and beautifully lyrical. It begged for a reread, not only to enjoy it all over again, but to connect more dots than I did the first time.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita is a polarizing book, and for good reason, as too many fans of it use it as an excuse to sexualize young girls, something Nabokov was explicitly against (Nabokov was furious about most of the choices made by Kubrick for the film adaptation, and on first publication, he insisted that no book cover should ever show Dolly herself).
But Nabokov meant for this book to be read more than once: he made Humbert Humbert, the pedophilic narrator, poetic on purpose — and it was not because he was sympathetic to him. He wanted to write a book where the evil is banal, and so even more dangerous, revealing how true evils and violent acts can be covered up by “pretty” language and normalized. But his goal wasn’t to cover it up well enough that it would be lost, and on second read, you notice things you didn’t before. This book is full of evidence of HH’s evil, of Dolly’s trauma, of the ways he dismisses her, renames her, abuses her — the ways that he interprets her genuine, normal emotions as illogical childishness, for example. I have read this novel five times, and each time I look back on my copy that’s worn with annotations, I find more heartbreak within it.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
In this brilliant, inclusive thought experiment from the 1970s, a woman committed to an asylum against her will finds herself traveling to a future utopia whose existence depends somehow on her actions. This novel explores myriad issues, from the forced sterilization of women of color to the poor treatment of the mentally ill, silencing of women, queerness and gender neutrality, and more, and I’m always surprised it doesn’t get more love in the SFF community today. It presents both what a utopia of the future has the potential to look like, in a fascinating, sex-positive light, and also what a dystopia could look like — while also presenting the 1970s themselves as a dystopian counterpoint to the future that Connie Ramos sees. The twists and ambiguities of this novel will absolutely make you want to pick it up and start it over at the beginning as soon as you’ve turned its final pages.
Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar, Translated by Gregory Rabassa and Zofia Chadzynska
This book, about an Argentine man living with his lover, La Maga, in Paris, can be read in multiple ways. You can follow a guided path. You can attempt to read it straight through. But (puzzle spoilers here): If you listen to the author’s guide to the chapters, and skip the “expendable chapters,” you could miss whole storylines. If you faithfully follow the guide, you will skip one single chapter. And its ending is a loop of sorts, causing you to question when the novel ends, or if it truly does. Reading this book is rereading it — at a certain point, you have to just decide to put it down, and decide which story to take with you.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
An elderly couple decides to leave their home to go and find their son’s village, for they haven’t seen him in a very long time. It is in a land peaceful not long after the reign of King Arthur, and traveling is still dangerous. While the couple wants to escape the mist that makes them lose their memories, they’re also worried that the more they remember, the less they might love each other.
Interestingly, some people do not read the ending as ambiguous at all, and yet many people I’ve talked to think different things happen at the end of this novel. It’s for that reason, and for the questions that Ishiguro asks, about what love is, about what we should remember in both relationships and in “larger” issues, such as war and nationhood. It’s a love story that makes you think about the cost of peace.
Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić, Translated by Christina Pribićević-Zorić
This is one of those books that I can never stop shouting about — I wrote about half my thesis on this wild book that consists of three parts: a Christian, Jewish, and Muslim source. All three write of the Khazars and their disappearance. All three have encountered different stories, myths, and truths about the civilization. Scholars that investigate the mysteries of the Khazars inevitably fall prey to mysterious accidents.
Pavić is a Serbian poet, translator, and literary historian who uses the novel to investigate issues of nationhood, and of what happens to a nation that “disappears” — was it destroyed, or was it simply filtered, its stories warped or changed, edited, small pieces of it surviving? It is the kind of book that is strange and certainly not for everyone, challenging the very idea of what a novel could be, but I promise you this: once you dig in, just like the scholars in the novel, you will never get out. There will always be another mystery to try and solve.
Paradise by Toni Morrison
“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” That’s how Paradise begins, a story about a small matriarchal safe house that lives outside a patriarchal town that slowly begins to blame the female outsiders for its problems. Morrison said in interviews that she was amused by readers’ preoccupation with which of the women “the white girl” was — it’s never explicit. The real questions of this novel, however, are rooted in mystery: What does paradise look like? How can paradise exist, and how would it need to be preserved, or protected? Can paradise exist alongside certain kinds of freedom? This novel asks so many questions that beg to be returned to.
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov deserves a second nod, simply because he fully believed that books had to be reread, and he wrote his books accordingly. Pale Fire is a strange book, because all the events of it take place in the footnotes. Kinbote, the friend of a recently deceased poet, annotates the poet’s final poem. Kinbote believes the poem is about himself, and his friendship with the poet. Kinbote also believes that he was once king of Zembla, exiled from his home. But what is the truth? You can reread and reread this novel, and it will be fascinating every time, but I guarantee you will find no easy answers.