MIND MELD: Do You Like To Re-Read?
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Here’s what they said…
For writers, of course, keeping up with an at least cursory overview of what’s new in one’s field is a professional obligation, and its good to have a founding in the classics. And research often requires reading an awful lot of nonfiction–but reading for pleasure or comfort? I’d say read whatever makes you happy. You’ll get different things out of a book each time you read it–and rereading is certainly a primal human drive. Otherwise, kids wouldn’t want The Little Engine That Could twice a night every night until it becomes engraved on their DNA.
We learn and internalize via repetition, after all–and narrative are the mechanism our minds use to organize information in a crowded, chaotic, and unknowable universe.
Also, sometimes we just don’t want to be surprised. Although the best books are unavoidably surprising; they surprise us every time.
Old books are always, in part, reminders of the time and places they were first read, or the time they were published. It’s probably the nearest we can get to time travel, these days! Memories of old libraries and buying from second-hand bookshops are throughout my personal reading history, as well as moments stolen reading on the way to work or those occasions when ‘just another chapter before’… has been my undoing.
My first ever ‘proper’ SF book I bought myself was a second hand ex-library copy of Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein, at about the age of eight, I think. I still have it. Though Heinlein’s content is variable, to say the least, I enjoy his short story collection, The Past Through Tomorrow most, where the ideas and the style are greatest, and the hectoring is least. Of his novels, the mid-range juveniles remind me of what I enjoyed about his writing most, and Tunnel in the Sky wasn’t a bad place to start.
Sometimes it’s just great to go a revisit a place you’ve been to before, just because it’s fun. Rereading also allows you a sense of anticipation whilst reading. You can remember what’s going to happen, but sometimes it is fun reading what happens to get to ‘that good part’. Even when you know what is going to happen, there’s an enjoyment from being there. By rereading a book you can usually find something you didn’t notice the first time.
With something as epic as George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones series, a lot of the enjoyment is in the little details rather than the main plot lines: the journey, rather than the destination. The Game of Thrones series by George RR Martin is an obvious one I’d recommend, for the complexity, the broadness of scale, the varied characterisation and the sheer vivacity and drive. I’m sure others will mention this one, so I daresay I need say no more.
There is always the chance that by rereading a book something that didn’t make sense the first time makes perfect sense the next time. For me it took me three goes at Frank Herbert’s Dune when I was a teenager to get it. I most recently enjoyed a reread of it in the original Analog magazines, which I have. It is so *not* Science-based Fiction, yet is still an engaging combination of Space Opera and Fantasy.
Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer was another one that took a while to understand, although admittedly Gene has a reputation for using the unreliable narrative/narrator. And that can be fun! Obviously being older when you reread means that you often look at things from a different perspective yourself. There are many books I understood better on rereading – Algis Budrys’s Rogue Moon, Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, for example.
From a practical point of view, knowing what happens in a story means that when you reread you can notice other aspects of the tale you missed first, second or third time around: the prose, the style, the characterisation, the world-building. I find that rereading Ray Bradbury, for example, leaves me in awe of his poetic visions, even when I know the plot. There’s something about Something Wicked This Way Comes that always reminds me of Halloween, not only because of its fictional setting, in a mid-Western town but when I first read it, ‘October, a rare month for boys’. It still gives a thrill, that one.
The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov were the first SF books I borrowed off my dad. They had lovely Chris Foss covers that made up one picture if you put the book covers in order. To be honest, the prose isn’t too great and its setup very much of the 1940’s Golden Age, but there’s an widescreen excitement there that I like a lot. To be writing ‘violence is the last refuge of the incompetent’ at a time when global war was happening was quite an impressive thing for me to read in my teens, although perhaps a little naive, and I also liked the idea that you could, according to Asimov and Hari Seldon, predict the future.
M.R. James Collected Stories: I actually have a lot of copies of this one, in various editions, most recently the handsome edition published by Jo Fletcher Books, which is about the most complete. Like Lovecraft, there’s a strange style in James’ stories that really shouldn’t work, but just does. There’s something about old artefacts, academia, old large houses and that indefinable presence of the ‘something there but not seen’.
Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. An obvious one, but one that fits the bill, in many ways. Despite its faults, there’s something still quite epic about the tale, and although the language can be quite convoluted, its poetry rather awful, and the plot slows down horrendously in the middle, there’s still much to gain from rereading this one. Mind you, I wouldn’t go as far as those who reread it once a year or more!
ASH: A Secret History by Mary Gentle. A regularly mentioned recommendation by me at SFFWorld when first published in 2000. It was a book that was one of those unexpected surprises, and so not what I was expecting when I started it. It’s also something I wouldn’t have said was something that I would normally appreciate – its language is quite coarse in places, its characters often unlikeable. Even so, it is a book I can read and reread, being a meaty SF/Fantasy novel that combines historical detail with alternate history. The ideas within it are quite awesome, the ending still cleverly baffling. It took a couple of reads before I think I got it.
Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories were such a revelation when I first read them. He’s a good guy, but he’s so un-heroic and atypical of what I expected. They have dated a tad, but they’re short and often a fun, quick reread. Similarly Michael’s Oswald Bastable and Runestaff novels have quite a sense of subversion that I didn’t realise reading them first time around.
One last one, although I’m sure this list will change the moment I stop typing. Arthur C. Clarke’s one of my favourite old authors and The City and the Stars is one of my favourites of his, because it illustrates a long forgotten past and the heralding of a future. It’s not his most famous novel, nor his best, stylistically. (It actually was a rewrite of an earlier work.) But for me it illustrates the longevity of time, that things rise and fall, and makes the point that one day Earth will decline and that we, as a race, will need to move on. Sentiments that impressed me very much in the 1960’s. But then I could also add A Fall of Moondust or Prelude to Space, or The Sands of Mars, or….
I am an obsessive re-reader. I grew up really poor, and I read really fast: this combination basically guaranteed that I would grow up memorizing my favorite books. But more than that, even a familiar story can be surprising, enlightening, when you come back to it at a different point in your life, or after learning more about the characters and world. Re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series after the final book was a completely different experience than reading it for the first time. I have formed very strong friendships based on a love of a single shared work of literature–I can’t imagine my life without Cat Valente now, and we’d never have been the kind of friends we are if we didn’t both love IT to an almost irrational degree.
Also, I find that while I may love books more the second time, I never love them any less. So it’s just this wonderful dance of strengthening my ties to the things that I care about, and discovering more reasons to love them. I probably re-read my favorites once a year. My favorite books to re-read are IT, The Stand, and On Writing, all by Stephen King; The Last Unicorn, by Peter Beagle; the entire Discworld series, by Terry Pratchett; and the Atomic Robo trade paperbacks, which get more awesome when I’m not looking. It’s magic.
I will never read all the books I want to read. I have learned not to let that fact stop me from re-reading.
This question is quickly going to turn into a confessional, because I am a chronic re-reader, often at the expense of trying new SF/F. That’s not to say I won’t pick up new material – I zipped through John Scalzi’s Redshirts in two days recently – but it takes a lot for me to commit to new books.
Until I became an author, I re-read books for the sheer enjoyment of it. A treasured story is like a warm blanket and a dram of whiskey on a cold day, a dose of pure comfort. I love to read, and SF/F is my genre of choice. So I read a fair amount, splitting time pretty evenly between my favorites of old and newer works.
Then I started writing my own stories, and everything changed.
First, there’s the simple matter of time. I have a full-time job that requires attention and a wife and daughter with whom I enjoy spending time. So when I embarked upon the work that would become The Daedalus Incident, something had to give and I began reading less. There really are only so many hours in a day, after all.
When I did have time to read, re-reading took on new importance. Having now been through the process of writing my own book, I could see more of the structure, more of the choices my favorite authors made. Go to a museum with an artist some time and get them talking about the things they see in their favorite work – same thing with me and novels. I could see the paint blending, how the shadows were filled in, the brush strokes used to flush out a scene. And it was fascinating and highly educational.
While becoming an author made me appreciate my favorite books more, I found myself tougher on newer works than I had been previously. I was more judgmental, questioning the authors’ choices. This sucked quite a bit of the enjoyment out of new material. And if something really was quite good, I would either:
- Despair of writing something anywhere near as good;
- Fear I would subconsciously adopt characters or plots into my own work; or
- Worry that I’d be sucked into something so good that I’d postpone my own writing for several critical weeks or months. (I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin.)
So in the end, when I do find myself with time – typically on a plane – I find myself reading a lot of my own personal classics. Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy lit my head on fire twenty years ago, because he took characters and setting from an admittedly stilted sci-fi movie series and made them come alive. Plus, as I grow my own settings, I can see how Zahn expanded the Star Wars universe so adeptly. I love enmeshing myself in Tolkien periodically, to simply relax into a world that many have imitated but few have improved upon. The original Dracula and Frankenstein, along with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, get revisited because they’re constant reminders of how a work can remain timeless and thrilling and scary. Finally, there are the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, because they place me in such a distinct time and place, while remaining somehow engaging and relevant. I re-read those every few years – usually when new episodes of BBC’s Sherlock are coming.
I’m a strong believer in rereading, though I don’t reread every book. A lot of them don’t stand up to it, but the ones that do are tremendously important. The metaphor I always use is to ask whether it’s better to meet lots and lots of people in your life, or to cultivate deep relationships with a few. I think just asking the question that way makes it pretty clear that a mixed strategy is best. I don’t want to just read five books over and over for the rest of my life, and I don’t want to just read new things once and toss them aside. But if I had to pick, I’d choose five really good books and be with them.
Rereading a well known and well loved book is really a wonderful experience, because the book actually changes over time because the reader is different too. The aspects that speak to me change because I’ve had different experiences and I’m thinking about different things. Reading Sayers’ Gaudy Night at 23, it’s a complex, funny mystery with a well-drawn romance subplot. At 36, it’s a meditation on whether to surrender freedom (real or imagined) in exchange for love, companionship, and sexual gratification. Or if there is a way to be with a spouse and partner without compromising and diminishing yourself. Oh, and with a mystery.
The books I reread every few years are Sayers’ Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane books, Camus’ The Plague, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (usually in small bits when I’m feeling really misanthropic), Henri Compte-Sponville’s A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit, and Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life and Others.
Books I’ve read multiple times but that aren’t quite habits is a much longer list. I read Eddings’ Belgariad until the spines broke when I was in high school, but I’ll never pick them up again. I’m pretty sure the guy I am now wouldn’t enjoy them, and I’d like to keep the memory positive. I’ve read Mythago Wood a few times, and might again or might not again. I read Tim Parks’ Medici Money a couple times. I’m sure I’ve reread P.G. Wodehouse, but I’ve never paid any attention to the plot, so I couldn’t say which ones. I’ve been through Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy at least twice (once reading out loud), and Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo three times (reading out loud twice).
But that said, my to-be-read pile right now doesn’t have anything on it that I’ve been through before. I’m on a kick where I’m exploring new writers and new books. When I’m done with that and want the comfort of old friends, I’ll head back to what I’ve read before.
I think a lot of SF and fantasy readers enjoy re-reading. I am one of those people — a person who lost track of how many times I’ve re-read The Lord of the Rings. (I stopped counting after thirty.) I still find new things in it, and of course now it has grown another level — where the fans interact with it and may have a different interpretation of who the characters are, and where they are going in the tale.
I have a lot of series I enjoy re-visiting, and which series have changed as I’ve changed. As a child I loved the dragon books of Anne McCaffrey or Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni. Then I did less re-reading of those and moved on to Dorothy Sayer’s Peter Wimsey mysteries, Barry Hughart’s Chronicles of Master Li & Number Ten Ox books, even Mercedes Lackey’s early Valdemar. I about memorized my Zelazny collection. Georgette Heyer’s frothy historical romances were great comfort reads.
I had a brief fling with the early Harry Potter novels, and was obsessive about The Riddlemaster Series by Patricia McKillip. Miller & Lee’s Liaden books are longtime favorites. Recently I’ve been on an urban fantasy binge. From Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, to Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books (and their offshoots) and Ilona Andrews’ work. My latest re-read candidates are Martha Wells’ Raksura books. I’m about to dive into the third one!
For those who don’t understand people who re-read tales, I ask you this — would you listen to a favorite piece of music only once?
While I like the idea of re-reading a lot, and once upon a time would re-read Tolkien, Asimov, Heinlein and other writers, I have not done much re-reading in years. The sheer volume of books out there to read, and re-read meant that the siren call of new books have always outweighed the old.
While I fondly muse on the possibility of re-reading some of my favorites over the years and wondering if they hold up to my memory of them, or to work today, it rarely happens. I buy books I already have read and own in paperback for my Kindle in order to do so sometime. If I had the time to do so (without falling permanently behind in my current reading), I’d re-read a whole set of things. Kate Sherrod’s reading of Gene Wolfe makes me want to re-read The Book of the New Sun. Now that I live in Minneapolis, I should re-read War for the Oaks. Was Job: A Comedy of Justice really as good as I remember? With the rise of the new sword and sorcery, I really should re-read Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. LeGuin’s work deserves a re-read. And many others.
And still…the mighty Mount Toberead looms. Emma Newman, Daniel Abraham, Robert Charles Wilson, Mazarkis Williams, Kim Stanley Robinson, a boatload of non fiction books…and on and on. In the end, though, a check of the books I’ve read over the last 6 years shows that the number of re-reads I have can be counted on the fingers of one hand, but not quite one finger.
On the other hand, I recently read Archangel Protocol (see my SF Signal Review) a book I had read in paperback over ten years ago when it first came out. It was a conflation of events that caused me to read it. The re-release of the book into an e-book form after many years out of print was certainly a factor, the desire to see if it still held up for me. Most importantly, it was a matter of happenstance. I had just finished my last read, and was trapped at a car repair place, frustrated and unhappy at the mounting amount of time (and money) my car maintenance was taking. Without even consciously thinking about the choice, I turned on my kindle and went to it, as opposed to the myriad books I have not yet read (including some by the authors listed above on Mount Toberead). And don’t you know it? It was exactly the calming balm I needed. It didn’t make the bill any less, but it allowed the time to go back much more peaceably than it might have otherwise.
So, perhaps, the vagaries of time and space will give me an opportunity to re-read some favorites, again, soon. My Kindle certainly is not lacking in the possibilities.
In 2012, I read a total of approximately 450 novellas and novels across a variety of genres for pleasure. I track my reading using Goodreads so I know from my stats that of those 450, approximately 75 of those were re-reads of books I’d previously read at some point in the past, including about 30 I read twice in 2012. So I guess you could say that I’m definitely a fan of re-reading and that includes fantasy.
Every year, I re-read one of my favorite series of all time, The Belgariad by David Eddings (oh man, do I wish they’d put this out in digital!). I can’t remember when I first read this series, though it’s been well over 20 years, and it’s a series I turn to whenever I hit a slump and nothing quite appeals. It’s one of the series I refer to as a “comfort read”, a series I can always turn to for entertainment, escape and just pure enjoyment. Over the years, as I’ve re-read, I’ve discovered new things I loved about the stories, new things I disliked about the characters, and new insights into the world building, the dogma and the conflicts.
In fact, that’s one reason I love to re-read; even though the books don’t change, I do. As I age, my perceptions, values and interests change and for that reason, though I’m reading the same story and characters over and over again, I’m still confronted with new perceptions of them, and so the story becomes something different to me. I can practically recite entire passages of Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels urban fantasy series or Tanya Huff’s Valor’s Choice, but that doesn’t keep me from enjoying something new about those books each time I re-read them.
Sometimes my changing perceptions don’t always have a positive impact on my re-reads of old favorites. This past year, I started on a re-read of The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, a series I stopped reading around book 8, when I realized that the stories were so dense, I was having to re-read every time a new installment released. At that point, I decided to stop reading until the series is complete (which happens to be now!) Since book 8 released in 1998, it had been nearly 15 years since I’d last read this series. And even though I’d read those early books multiple times in the years before 1998, and had already developed a perception of the stories, and the characters, I came to them from an entirely different place 15 years later. Nearly 40, I’ve been divorced and remarried. I have a child, I graduated from college, I spent 5 years on a career I then left and am now nearly 10 years into my second career.
Our world has evolved and I’ve evolved with it and as that happened, I discovered that I viewed how Robert Jordan portrayed his characters, especially the women, much differently. I was able to recognize stereotypes and archetypes and gender assumptions in a way I previously hadn’t. Not only that, but a decade into a career in publishing and editing, I recognized pacing lags and story inconsistencies and things that I might have wished he’d done differently. The stories hadn’t changed, but I had, and it was like I was reading them all for the first time, for both good and bad.
For that reason, there are books I will never read again, though they’re favorite books and books I love and used to re-read frequently. Because I want to preserve my good memory of the book, hold onto my fondness for it and believe in the magic of the story. For me, that’s what re-reading is all about: the magic of the story. Not just in fantasy but in any genre–though I’d argue that fantasy and science fiction are often well-suited to being re-read. These are arguably the two fiction genres with the densest, most involved world-and-plot building. A reader could easily read and re-read and find new nuances and details that they missed previously, especially if they were turning the pages as quickly as possible the first time through because they couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Of course, there’s also that practicality I mentioned earlier: sometimes you need to re-read every time a new book in the series releases, so the details are fresh in your mind during the lasts installment!
But I also think that fantasy invites readers to sink into the world, get comfortable and come back to rediscover it. Authors spend years setting up their worlds and characters, developing new languages, new theology, new customs. It feels only natural that fans of this genre would re-read, because fantasy offers so much to discover and learn! If you love the world, love the characters, love the author’s voice and turn of phrase, it’s difficult to resist going back again and again. At least, it is for me…
Filed under: Mind Meld
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