Our Reading Lives

Researched Rereading

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There are many reasons to reread a book. Children love hearing their favorite stories over and over. Moms and dads read Goodnight Moon until the words pain them. After we learn to read on our own, many young bookworms reread resonating books obsessively in adolescence. In adulthood, when time is not on our side, we reserve our precious reading hours to mostly new books. When we do reread, it often falls into a pattern. We either want to relive a literary love affair, or we want to spend time with old chums because they are such comfortable companions on stressful days. Sometimes we reread because we just can’t cope with making new fictional friends. We need an imaginary friend with history. Later on in life, when wrinkles appear on the backs of our hands and memories fade, nostalgia pulls us back to fondly reexperience those cherished books we imprinted on in our younger days.

There’s another kind of rereading that appeals to the scholarly, would-be writers, ardent fans of authors, and the ontological tormented. They reread not for pleasure, but story enlightenment. The first time we read a book it must stand on its own. Readers don’t need to know anything about the author, how the story was written, or if it was based on real people and events. The second reading is where we come to a fork in the road. We can still reread for fun, or we can reread with research, seeking contextual insights. Most Book Riot readers know all about rereading for fun because this site endearingly covers that topic often. But how many of us enjoy studying how writers pull off their magic?

When I read a book for the second time I want to know its ontology. How did the book come into existence? How did the author discover the story? Was the story based on real people? If so, who were they, what were they like, how did they feel about the author, what were their reactions to becoming characters, and what happened to them when their fictional counterparts became literary legends? Was the public reaction kind or hateful? Did the book have social impact? Is it fading away, or becoming a classic?

I’m not a literary scholar who deconstructs books academically. My ontological curiosity makes me reread like an amateur historian, hoping to understand the actual genealogy of a book. Thomas Piketty made his brilliant economic work, Capital in the Twenty First Century far more engaging by citing 19th central novels, revealing historical monetary data embedded in fiction. That’s why I also enjoyed Jane Austen For Dummies by Joan Klingel Ray and What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool as rereading supplements. Second readings are more rewarding when I know how they fit into history.

I also read biographies of authors, studying those sections that cover the author’s life when they wrote the book. It’s fulfilling to understand what motivates writers. Biographies, interviews, documentaries tell us this kind of information. Just last week PBS ran programs on Alice Walker and Flannery O’Conner which made me want to do some rereading.

I love finding biographies of books. Such books about books are rare but worth seeking. They do all the research for supplementing a perfect reread. I’ve read The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway three times. After reading The Paris Wife by Paula McLain I wondered why Hemingway left his wife Hadley out of The Sun Also Rises (which is very autobiographical). I even wrote an essay about that mystery. Recently Everyone Behaved Badly by Lesley M. M. Blume came out and answered almost all my questions. Everyone Behaved Badly contains exactly the kind of knowledge I want when I reread a book — fiction or nonfiction. Two more book biographies I’ve enjoyed lately were The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham, and Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time by Roger Shattuck.

Sadly, most books don’t have their own biography. Such handy co-reads for my re-reads are rare. That forces me to do detective work myself. Google is convenient, but sometimes research involves library work. But any book worth reading twice is worth a bit of detective footwork. Sometimes reprint editions include contextual information. My copy of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells is a Norton Critical Edition that contains the story, original book reviews, and scholarly essays about its literary and social impact. Time Travel: A History by James Gleick went even further, showing how Wells’ story mutated over time in popular culture.

I recently reread The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder, a nonfiction book I first read after it came out in 1981. During my 2017 rereading, I had to track down online articles, essays, interviews, videos, etc., to satisfy my ontological curiosity while rereading the book. The more I read about the people profiled in The Soul of a New Machine, the more I want to know what has happened to them in the 36 years since. Because Kidder’s prose is so good, I also want to know how he wrote this Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning story. The Soul of a New Machine has been used as a textbook in both business colleges and English departments. It is required reading for anyone studying the history of computing. I ended up blogging about my research, which also improved my rereading experience.

Often the books I love rereading involve an exceptional writer fictionalizing or profiling a bigger-than-life real person. For example, On the Road, Jack Kerouac writes about Neal Cassidy. Cassidy was so fascinating he was used as a character by many writers, and the subject of many works of nonfiction, including Tom Wolfe’s book about Ken Kesey, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Which is more thrilling – being the writer of a great book, or the protagonist in that book? In The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder profiles Tom West, a manager who secretly assembles a team of brilliant young engineers to build a new 32-bit minicomputer in 1978-1980 under a brutal deadline. I wonder if this story didn’t inspire Steve Jobs when he managed the folks who built the Macintosh. Who do I envy more, Tracy Kidder or Tom West? Not only did Kidder win top writing awards, he produced an early example of creative nonfiction, nonfiction that reads like a fiction. On the other hand, Tom West gave birth to a computer by inspiring a couple dozen brilliant men and women, half of which were just out of college.

First readings are mostly about the plot. We’re anxious to know what happens. Other aspects, such as characterization in fiction and content for nonfiction are important, but plot drives compulsive storytelling. Modern creative nonfiction has borrowed techniques from novels to make their narrative more compelling. Second readings are about going deeper into characterization and observing the author’s skill at story construction.

A great book will represent a lifetime of experience containing so many dimensions that it will be impossible to grasp in one reading. Researched rereading helps us comprehend the magnitude of effort that went into writing a book.

Even if a reader reads very slowly, savoring the words, taking their time to carefully decode every intent of the author, I doubt they’ll comprehend 25% percent of the embedded information in a first reading. Speed readers get even less. It takes several readings to digest a book, even if the reader is judging the book by itself. To understand a book in its ontological context requires supplemental external reading.

I love to consume books. But if I’m honest with myself, I know speed reading is like driving through Miami on the way to Key West and claiming I’ve been to Miami. Reading a book slowly is like staying several days. Rereading is like staying a few weeks. Ontological studying a book is like living in Miami for a year. Some scholars study their favorite books with such devotion that they have become permanent residents.