This week we asked our participants to talk about the perils of re-reading. Going back to a book read in one’s golden age of SF reading can be a fraught exercise. Characters we thought we wonderful can turn out to be wooden. Settings we thought diverse and open turn out to be monochromatic. Plots that enthralled us can seem facile. Books we enjoyed can be rife with questionable material. Writers whose work we loved can turn out to be terrible human beings.
Here’s what they said…
Jo Walton’s suck fairy phenomenon is a valid thing to fear, of course. Lots of books don’t hold up to examination, if we come back to them as adults after remembering that we loved them as kids. That said, I think it’s a useful exercise, as a writer, to sometimes dive into something like Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters uncritically, and try to read it as our ten-year-old selves might.
That said, the books I reread purely for pleasure tend to be things I’ve read in the last decade, as an adult. As such, I have clear and so far pretty accurate memories of the experience I had and what I’m looking for in a reread. One example would be Nicola Griffith’s Aud books, which I adore, and Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac. In both cases, it’s the voice that draws me back and neither author fades when I revisit them.
Another I sometimes do is go back to older works as a reviewer. A few years ago, I reread a bunch of horror novels from the 80s, things I loved as a teen. I read Shadowland, by Peter Straub and It by Stephen King. Then, because I had trouble finding bigtime Eighties horror novels written by women, I read reread the great gothic incestfest known as Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews. The result was an essay about how Andrews had written the Twilight of my youth.
Rereading Flowers was weird. It is very poorly written on a line by line basis. The story is, not surprisingly, wafer-thin. But what got to me wasn’t the silly gothic machinations of the evil Dollanganger family–even as a kid, loving the books, I knew it was all cheesy and improbable. No, it was how far we’ve come politically…because the mother especially is portrayed as entirely ornamental, useless, and completely evil. She is so passive she makes Austen’s Fanny Price look like the Road Warrior.
It wasn’t a Suck Fairy moment exactly, but I do hope that this variation of weird simpering femininity continues to stay out out of fashion.
I know people who don’t like to re-read a book they’ve read before, but I love it. When I re-read a book, I already know what parts I want to focus on and which parts I’ll skim. I can read my favorite scenes over and over without worrying how they’ll work into the larger plot (since I already know.) Yes, there are no surprises, but re-reading is like comfort food–enjoyable precisely because you know what you’re getting. Most of the time.
My era of discovering genre fiction dates back to high school and early college. I read Cherryh and Dibell and Eddings. I still have all those books. And I love rereading all of them. (I’ve been meaning to re-read The Faded Sun trilogy since the beginning of the year, but I can’t seem to make a dent in my TBR pile.)
On the other hand, last year I decided to pick up a copy of a book that I recalled liking in my formative years. As I started reading it, I discovered that things that I’d been willing to give a pass back in college bothered me far more now. Yes, I recall that the language (especially the dialog) was stilted, but that was the style in those times for Great Big Honking Fantasies. And that scene with the hero going off the night before the big battle to ‘visit’ a prostitute? I recall I found it annoying on the first read, but on this re-read it really bugged me.
I recalled the plot of the book pretty well, and had read several of the author’s other books during college. But back when I first read that book, there must have been enough I didn’t love in the book that I decided not to keep it. So I suppose that the lesson for me was that I should stick with re-reading books I know I love. Life’s too short to re-read the ones that make me cringe!
“Suck fairy” is such a good name for this phenomenon. All the warm fuzzy memories I have for books, and all the good things I remember being there, get sucked right out when I try to re-read. Books I loved when I was younger—and more innocent and oblivious—are often completely unreadable now. Entire series have gone into the “what the hell was I thinking” pile. The more I read and the longer I write, the taller that pile grows.
I don’t think the books have changed. I’ve changed. The eleven-year-old girl who devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs is now a grown woman who cringes at the prose, and the roles given to women in his books. Maturity and social awareness take a huge toll on favorite reads from my past. Once seen, problematic choices that authors made, choices that flew right past me in my twenties, can’t be unseen. I was so hungry for fantasy and science fiction stories at that age, so eager to read any that fell into my hands that I tore through books, and didn’t stop to think about the messages being delivered. I think about them now, both as a writer and as a reader.
The only way I’ve found to avoid destroying fond memories of books is to never read them again. That’s the major reason I seldom re-read anything. There are always new books to read, new memories to make.
The one shining exception to that is Ray Bradbury. I was ten or eleven when I first found his books in the library, and I’ve read his Martian stories more times than I can count. The suck fairy has never visited those books. I don’t think she ever will.
The Suck Fairy is a real and present danger to everyone who enjoys reading and ever considers re-reading. A few years ago I embarked on a re-read of David and Leigh Eddings’ Belgariad series with Tehani Wessely; I discovered that I was still enamoured of many of the characters – they were childhood friends! – but goodness there were some major issues: gender problems, class problems, rape scenarios… it was fun and sad simultaneously. And I’ve just started a re-read of The Elenium, again with Tehani and this time adding Jo Anderton, with the same discovery. So sometimes re-reading can work – but only if you’re prepared to be dismayed. And some things stand up better to a little bit of Suck Fairy Dust than others. For me, the Eddings books are resilient, because they were such a part of my early fantasy reading. I’ve been considering re-reading some Anne McCaffrey, though, and although she was as much a part of my life as Eddings, I’m scared… because I’m not sure they will stand up as well. I will be very, very sad if Rowan isn’t as wonderful as I recall.
I have been badly affected in the past: it’s not SF (well, not meant to be), but I was a huge Clive Cussler fan as a teen and, well, an attempted re-read there ended badly. Very badly. On a more positive note, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos were just fine, and Michael Scott Rohan’s Cloud Castles (etc.) were mostly ok – the only issues were ones I was already aware of. The next big attempted re-read I’ve got planned is the entirety of the Deathstalker series by Simon Green…but that’s going to require quite a run-up. Or just falling off a cliff.
I know there are some people who never re-read books, and I can understand that perspective. There’s such a ton of new books to read! But I love re-reading. I love the feeling of a book being like an old friend – there is a genuine pleasure in knowing exactly what’s coming up. Little kids know this; it’s why they want the same picture book every single night. Re-reading allows me that joy, too. Sometimes it lets me see new things; sometimes those things are good. Sometimes they’re bad, but not always.
Well, this is perfect timing! I’ve just started a reread of David Eddings’ Elenium and Tamuli trilogies. I got hooked on these books in my very early teens, and they were instrumental in forming my love of genre fiction and my desire to write it myself. Coming back to them has been fascinating. I had to dig the things out of a box in the back of my wardrobe. The books themselves are heavy with memories and nostalgia. I clearly remember buying them, the Tamuli in particular. My copies are hardbacks, and they were really expensive back in the day, I had to save up a lot of pocket money to afford them but there was NO WAY I was going to wait for the paperbacks! I covered them all in contact, but even so they’re dog-eared, and battered around the edges, and the spines have faded. They travelled with me when I left home, they were one of the first series I made sure my now-husband read and enjoyed (that kind of thing is important for a relationship to work!)
I read both series several times as a teenager, but hadn’t done so for a while until now. So I have to admit, the “suck fairy” has been very much on my mind going into this. I love these books with a completely irrational love. I will defend Sparkhawk to anyone, dammit! So, yes, the process is definitely fraught. What will I do if I meet the suck fairy down some back alley in Cimmura?
I guess at this point, any reread is going to be completely different to an initial read. For books you’ve loved so strongly, particularly so long ago, it’s impossible to see them with fresh eyes. All that history I’ve just been talking about will never leave them. I think the best way to avoid disappointment is to face that full on. Acknowledge that you as a reader have changed, and as a writer you will look for different things than your teenaged self did. Accept the flaws if you find them, but revel in the things that still make you smile.
At least, that’s what I’m doing. I have definitely noticed things this time around that make me cringe. Sometimes, I even cringe at my own teenaged reaction to these things. But as much as that’s important to recognise, I can still delight in the dialogue that always made me laugh, the characters that lived and breathed with me, and the nostalgia I feel with every new scene.
These books were fundamental in creating the reader and the writer I am today. And I don’t think anything can or should change that. Maybe I will just shake the suck fairy’s hand if I meet her, say “thanks for your perspective, I totally see what you’re getting at there” but go on loving them anyway.
A few years ago, I re-read Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. I wasn’t disappointed in either the story or the prose, but the re-read made me realize how much I had matured from the time I first read that story at age twelve and now. It was my first fantasy and has always held a special place in my heart, especially because of McKillip’s lyrical prose, but what held me rapt as a young adult seemed almost trite to me as an adult.
The book didn’t change, I did. McKillip’s stories have changed too. In the Forests of Serre was a much more mature story about loss and grief, and I think I will probably give that one a re-read with no misgivings. With that said, I’ve learned the best strategy for avoiding disappointment in a re-read is to look at the audience a particular work is aimed toward. Then I compare that audience with where I am emotionally. If it is young adult (or young adult in everything but marketing), I tend to avoid it, not because young adult books are bad, but because the themes don’t appeal to me the way they did when I was younger. Generally, when I read a young adult book, it is a newer work and I rarely go back to it a second time.
I have about three books that I enjoy re-reading on a regular basis. They’re like comfort food for me—the kind of book or story that I can simply fall into. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn is one that I sometimes pick up and open at random to start reading. I’ve read it so many times it doesn’t matter where I begin. I never cease to be fascinated by the world Dunn created with Oly and her Shakespearian family of freaks.
Christopher Buehlman’s Between Two Fires is another book that I recently read for the first time but will go back and re-read. It was the perfect mix of fantasy and horror, and I loved it so much, I only allowed myself a few pages a day so I could stretch out the enjoyment as long as I could. Likewise, Stephen King’s The Gunslinger remains one of my favorite comfort books, because it contains that same mix of fantasy and horror. It’s a short read and I think it King is on top of his game with Roland. I enjoyed The Gunslinger more because of its brevity. So those are my favorites, they fail to disappointment no matter how I often I read them, and they are mainly a mix of fantasy and horror.
I’m a big fan of re-reading books. Every October I re-read Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October and every December I re-read Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather. Both books get me in the spirit of the holidays and it feels like hanging out with old friends when I get to pull them off my shelf again.
Currently, I’m re-reading all of the Harry Potter books. They shaped much of my childhood and adolescence yet I haven’t read them since I was a teenager. It’s been amazing to dive back into the magical world of Harry, Ron and Hermione. There’s so much in the books I had forgotten and parts that make me tear up all over again. Neil Gaiman and Tamora Pierce also never fail to make my re-reads list.
Sadly, not all books stand the test of time. Anne Rice stands out in my mind as an author who I loved irrevocably when I read her many years ago but doesn’t seem quite as good now. Interview With The Vampire is still a great book even today, but each volume in the Vampire Chronicles is less grand and more problematic than I remember. Characters and scenes that I thought were once lush and beautiful and complicated became flat, overly ornate and obnoxious. Part of me wishes I hadn’t gone back to them because my memory of the series is tarnished now. It’s partly why I’m afraid to re-read H.P. Lovecraft. I read the Cthulhu stories in college and loved them so I’m wary of re-examining them with an older and wiser mind.
Re-reading a book can be like hearing a song on the radio you haven’t heard since you were in high school. Sometimes you remember all the words and sometimes you wonder what the hell you were thinking.
I remember the luxury of re-reading! I have read my Melanie Rawn DragonPrince and DragonStar series (and the first two of her Mageborn series, still hopeful for the third…) till they fell apart, and “reread” via audiobook much of the early Harry Potter books.
Some things I discovered in re-reading were not technically the suck-fairy, but instead little storytelling habits an author falls into. For example, I realized Rawn had a similar path for two characters in very different series: two young women, extremely skilled in magic, each had something bad happen to them to make them decide never to get married and instead devote themselves entirely to magic (I’ll remain vague on the details). These patterns I probably wouldn’t have noticed in one read-through, but the parallels are obvious to me now. I wonder if she planned this or if this was a subconscious theme she visits. (I haven’t read her other series.)
As for Harry Potter, I noticed that Rowling was rather more clever than people gave her credit for (yes the books were immensely readable and enjoyable, but the woman had a plan for nearly everything, and you gotta respect that). Tons of Harry/Hermione shippers fell to rending their clothes and wailing in the streets after book seven came out. Clearly she had made the wrong decision, they never saw those relationships coming!* But several careful listens to narrator Jim Dale tell me the stories of the kids during their early adventures had me realizing that Ron’s first thought during danger – every time – was Hermione, while Harry’s priority was always to deal with the threat at large. (Not to mention Ginny had her eyes on Harry since the beginning.) **
I also slip into some books as if they were comfortable slippers. I find that chapter 1 of The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul by Douglas Adams is required listening while I am standing in line at security at the airport. I have such travel anxiety that I need Adams’ rich voice in my ear telling me that no language has ever developed the phrase, “as pretty as an airport.” I also like the way he says, “slithered,” when referencing pizza. These things calm me, even though I have to remove him from my ears as I go to get molested by TSA. I rarely get past the chapter where Kate hangs out with the penguins, as I no longer need the security blanket of Douglas Adams once I get a beverage and find my gate, but I find I must have those first two or three chapters on every trip to the airport. I do find flaws with the Dirk Gently books, namely that they often have too many dancing tacos** in them, and those dancing tacos stand out more and more on re-reads, but as light reads they are still enjoyable, and Adams’ voice is quite soothing.
As I’ve gotten older, I see my to-be-read pile and see re-reading as a total guilty pleasure. Life is too short to read a book you don’t like, but it also may be too short to re-read books you do like. It doesn’t seem to be a good move to step into an old book when there are so many new books to check out, but still, it happens. I will move to audiobooks for rereading because that doesn’t feel as guilt-inducing, but I also have a to-be-listed-to pile.
It’s probably true that at what age you discover the joy of reading dictates when your “Golden Age” happens. For many, that age is around 13, when we begin to discover a world outside of our own experience. At about that age, I was lucky to have a wonderful English teacher who not only encouraged me to read Shakespeare, but to also begin writing my own fiction. Shakespeare has, not surprisingly, held up over the years, but a few other stories that I picked up at that time certainly have not.
At that age I was reading anything I could get my hands on, from the typical books on the school reading list like Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, to my mother letting me discover Romance novels and introducing me to Science Fiction. Like many girls in my generation, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie and the Nancy Drew mysteries were heavily-recommended reading. I never really enjoyed Little Women and so have never re-read it. Anne of Green Gables stood up to my tween memories of it when I re-read it with my own daughter, but Little House on the Prairie? Not so much.
Many have already pointed out the problems the stories present for Native Americans, but I also never realized how generally depressing it was. So depressing that I didn’t encourage my daughter to continue reading after one or two. The “Suck Fairy” had definitely come to visit.
While I appreciate the in-roads Laura made for higher education for women, and certainly admire the survivalist that Laura Ingalls Wilder was, it was just such a depressing read for me. Brain fevers leading to blindness, diphtheria, etc., just generally the reality of the hardships of pioneer life I found to be extremely depressing. Ingalls wrote it as an autobiography and it read like one, meandering from one horrible event to the next with the point being to just endure. Some people find this inspiring, and that’s wonderful, but I prefer my fiction to be an escape, a temporary respite from reality so that I’m recharged to dive back into day-to-day life. So, Little House on the Prairie is one classic that I choose to take a pass on.
I’ve been binge-reading classic SF in preparation for a panel I’ll be on at the World Future Society in Orlando, probably around the time this mind meld comes out. I re-read Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and On the Beach. They all escaped the suck fairy overall, in surprising ways, and I was awed by how eerily they echo today’s society.
On the Beach (Neville Shute, 1957) still has the most emotional punch of the three. I cried – again and as always – when I read it. Of note, the book is a dire warning about nuclear disaster, which remains as current a problem as climate change. I think we’re just tired of worrying about it, and it feels like something we can’t control. Of the three, this book had its science the most wrong, though. On the Beach describes a world of predictable annihilation, where nuclear fallout draws a curtain of death slowly down from the Northern Hemisphere to the South Pole. Chilling but not how nuclear winter would really happen. It has exactly the right emotional punch for the problem though, and Shute is an expert at character. He is truly a master writer.
1984 (George Orwell, 1949) is easily the most talked about book of the three, and is currently referenced regularly in relation to the Snowden revelations. Big Brother and the NSA are almost interchangeable in some contexts. However, this was the hardest to read and the details of Orwell’s world seemed the furthest from any possible truth. I found Orwell’s 1984 too monochrome to enjoy or believe. Still, I will forever be in Orwell’s debt for the warning he gave the world.
Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury, 1953). Wow. I hadn’t read ANY Bradbury for a long time, and rather than being afflicted with the suck fairy, it amazed me over and over with brilliant, beautiful, incisive line-by-line prose. I had truly forgotten how well Bradbury wrote. Although we certainly live in a world filled with books, Bradbury’s novel reflects our current society so well it’s as if he saw social media coming. That said, like 1984, it also suffered from monochromatic world syndrome. In spite of that, I found it chillingly reflective of humanity in many ways. Unlike 1984 with it’s centralized and systematized evil, Fahrenheit 451 suggests that we may do ourselves in with inattention, or rather by paying attention to the wrong things. For example, to the Kardashians instead of to climate change.
I’m grateful for this exercise. Not only did I remind myself why these books matter, but I also learned some things that may help me as a writer. That said, while On the Beach still pulled me in emotionally as if I were reading it for a first time (and it was probably my fifth read), reading the other two was a more intellectual experience even though I recall my first reads were full of awe. Fahrenheit 451 still awed me, but for the quality of the prose more than the story of Guy Montag.
Still, I think I’ll go hide in a corner and read more Ray Bradbury…
My grandfather said that there are no “bad” books – just a way to read a book and get the best part of it. Maybe I have been strongly influenced by my grandfather’s theory OR I love books too much; whatever the reason, I really feel bad when the Suck Fairy pays me a visit that has something to do with a book. Now, when that happens, the first thing I do is to try to think of the book as positive as possible before I put it back on the shelf. This is especially important when I re-read a book I have loved. A book is like a good friend; at some stage, you spent a wonderful while with it and sometimes the book was even a comfort at a difficult moment. It does deserve a defence before it is rejected.
Like Jo Walton, I quite dislike moral or political messages connected with a book (especially a fantasy book). Now, if a story has enough “magic” that works for me, I try to ignore those messages or to show the sympathy and tolerance you have for the imperfections of a good friend. This is my attitude with fairy tales: most of them still incite almost the same sense of wonder they did when I was a little girl. If the story is powerful enough to cause emotion and a sense of wonder in me, I try to “close the eyes” to the messages and enjoy the story. The best example of a story that really frustrated me with messages of pure, disinterested love was Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. Even when I was a child, this story made me sad and I found its end unfair. Quite often, I would re-create the story in my mind and give it the kind of evolution I would love to see in the story (and this is NOT the Little Mermaid marrying the prince and living happily ever after.) On the other hand, the story is so beautiful, so poetic- it incites such strong emotions in me that I forgive Andersen just like the Little Mermaid forgave the prince. The Suck Fairy loses- she does not get to me.
In some other cases, the book is reputed to have powerful messages, BUT I never noticed them (even though I was told about those messages repeatedly.) An example is The Lord of the Rings: in spite of the reputation of the book as a Christian allegory, somehow, this aspect never touched me so it never bothered me (I have read the books about three times at least- it never happened). All I know is that I read a beautiful story. Why should I bother about moral messages that I don’t even sense? Anyway, if the story moves me and gets to me, I don’t really care about the moral messages in the book. I think that you have to be tolerant towards this kind of message, especially if this is something positive. The best stories, the ones with more life in them are the ones where the emotions and the beliefs of the author are skilfully inserted into the story and the characters. I like less the books written just in order to pass some message, but even in those cases I make an exception if the story is good.
Apart from moral messages, Jo Walton mentions sexism and racism and homophobia among other things that can bring the “Suck Fairy” to life. In my opinion, one has to be cautious with those notions, especially when they are associated with a fantasy story. More often than not, sexism and racism and so on are NOT in the book; it is not in the intention of the writer to be racist or sexist. It is in the mind of some readers who get wrong messages, probably because of personal susceptibilities to those issues. J.K. Rowling was accused to be sexist in the Harry Potter books. You can love Harry Potter or not; you can criticize certain aspects of the story, but I really cannot believe that J.K. Rowling had any intention to be sexist in her stories – this was all in the mind of a few readers.
Some time ago, I was working on a comic – we were exchanging points of view with the artist and trying to create the basis of the story. I sent a suggestion to the artist and her answer was: “I don’t think that this is a good idea. This would be sexist as it would reduce the heroine to the state of a sex object…” I was appalled by this comment. The only thing I wanted was to create a good story and also to explain some of the elements in the character of the heroine. I was NEVER thinking of passing any kind of philosophical messages and sexism is something that I dislike. Now, just consider this: the above-mentioned misunderstanding was between me and the artist – my collaborator and a dear friend of mine. Imagine what can happen if people who don’t know you read the stories you write…
Advanced technology and better science knowledge can be a specific problem connected to SF books (and series or movies too). For instance, you read the books by Jules Verne when you are a child and you get a sense of awe. You read them later and you realize that it is not possible to shoot people to the moon with a cannon; it is not likely to find a lost paradise filled with primitive creatures deep under the earth. Travelling around the world would take much less than 80 days at present and Captain Nemo’s City under the sea would require a different source of energy nowadays. Even so, the magic is still there – Verne’s books always worked for me whatever their scientific weaknesses. The story is powerful and it does not have to do only with strong reasoning and scientific arguments; there is much more than that in Verne’s stories. The Suck Fairy has no power when it comes to Verne – not for me anyway!! In some other SF books (more recent than Verne – most of them were written in the “Golden Period” of SF), you will see space travels, fantastic robots that could be super-power gifted humans, teleportation and many other wonders of future science. When it comes to communicate with other people or to record something, this is done…by tapes!!!!! You will agree that you don’t see many tapes around nowadays and without any mention of cellular phones, internet and CDs the “visionary” effect of the story is somewhat ruined. Even so, if the story is good, I really don’t care about such things. The main charm for me, the essential of the magic is always in the story.
If you read a book – especially one you have loved before – and you feel that the Suck Fairy is about to pay you a visit, always consult the Book Lawyer closest to your location before accusing the book and putting it back in the shelf. Maybe it is not the book that is in fault; it is just your mood or the way you read it that does not allow you to find in the story the pleasure you had experienced the first time you read it. If you try to show some tolerance toward the book, you will possibly find the pleasure again or even discover new things that move you- things that you had not noticed the first time. This is a wonderful thing: to read a book twice, to be able to enjoy it again and to discover new wonders in it. Now, if that really does not work, just close the book and put it in the shelf before the Suck Fairy gets to you. Try to keep some of the magic you experienced the first time as a reminiscence and move on to other books, more appropriate for you at the present time. A good reminiscence is better than nothing and you owe that much to the book… and to yourself. Don’t forget that the magic is not only in the book, but inside YOU too.
Sometimes I’m too afraid of the Suck Fairy even to revisit books I loved. This is the case with Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series, which I adored as a teenager. I devoured them one after another, and I was downright infatuated with Slippery Jim diGriz. So when I was reminded of him the other day, I went straight to Amazon and put an omnibus edition in my basket. But I haven’t dared go back to press the ‘Buy’ button. The very fact that I loved the Rat in those intense, hormonal years seems to be a warning. It can’t be as good as I remember; it just can’t. So Slippery Jim, I’ve decided, is going to remain a warm and toasty memory. The same goes for pretty much all of the X-Men comics that are still in boxes in my mother’s attic. I don’t have strategies for dealing with that bad fairy, except to avoid the situation when I can; I’m a coward that way. I don’t want the memories to get sucky.
So I think you can dodge her if you’re aware she’s around, but the Suck Fairy bit me hardest when I wasn’t expecting her. In 2001, right before the Lord of the Rings movies came out, I decided to re-read the trilogy. I was prepared for Tom Bombadil, and I kind of skimmed him, so the first two books were just fine.
What I didn’t expect was the ponderousness of The Return of the King. I had absolutely no memory of that biblical pomposity. The style didn’t even seem related to the first two books. “And lo, after the oily shampoo-and-set that ruined his rugged good looks, the King thus did rule beneficently.” (No, I can’t quote properly, because I’ve vowed never to open it again.)
On the bright side, I have never had a problem re-reading The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which was also a childhood favourite. Sure, the way Gowther’s accent is rendered is irritating (it annoys me with Scottish characters, and this was just as bad), and Colin and Susan are cardboardy kid-heroes, but somehow the Suck Fairy can’t touch them anyway. I guess some books, with some readers, are just magically impervious.
My initial reaction is to narrow my eyes in the direction of the copy of The Mists Of Avalon that I’ve shoved to the back of my bookshelf in shame. Talk about a book that meant everything to me at a formative point in my life that I now can’t pry apart from the reprehensible behavior of the author! I’m terrified to open it again lest I find I still like it.
But to be quite honest, since becoming a writer and a mother, I no longer have acres of time to reread old favorites. I’m a creature of the moment who rarely stops to revisit the past. I used to reread my Tom Robbins collection and the Outlander series every year, but now I’d rather use that time to read or write something brand new. I haven’t actually reread any old books since 2010, and the few past favorites that I’ve picked up to read aloud to my children were, from a writer’s perspective, disappointing. As much as I love the Harry Potter world, the first big chunk of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone could be retitled This Info Dump Will Make You Hate the Dursleys and Leave Many Questions About Harry’s Psychological Contradictions. Luckily, Diana Gabaldon is still writing amazing books, so I’m able to continue Claire and Jamie’s saga with a new book every four years. And we even had a new Jean Auel recently, which means I’ve been reading her books for over twenty years. In most cases, however, I choose to remember books fondly for what they meant to me at that time and don’t seek to hold them up to today’s standards. That’s also why I don’t drink vodka; barf it once, and you’ll never want to taste it again.
When I re-read a book I haven’t looked at in years, I’m prepared to see things I didn’t see before. Sometimes they’re good things, sometimes bad. When I re-read the older British mysteries that I enjoyed as a teenager, for example, I know I’m going to run into sexism or racism that I didn’t notice at the time. There are some books I know I shouldn’t try to re-read, because my tastes have changed so much since I was a teenager that I know I won’t like the writing style, even though I still love the story itself. I don’t tend to re-read a lot of older SF/F classics, because I don’t want to see how dated they are now. Sometimes I stumble on and re-read a book I haven’t looked at in years and realize what a big influence it was on me at the time. It’s odd to read something so long ago that you barely remember it, and see how it still echoes in your own writing.
I recently re-read The Idylls of the Queen by Phyllis Ann Karr (who was writing grimdark with books like Frostflower and Thorn before grimdark was cool.) It came out in 1982, and was just as good as I remembered. I remembered wishing (and still wishing) it was twice as long, and I hadn’t remembered how she had included the Saracen knights Palomides and Safir, who are often left out of Arthurian fantasies.
Other books that I still enjoy are The Hall of the Mountain King by Judith Tarr, The Darwath Trilogy and the Sun Wolf and Starhawk books by Barbara Hambly, all from the 80s. In SF there’s F.M. Busby’s Zelde M’tana and Rissa Kerguelen and really, pretty much all his other books.
For a number of reasons I have been re-reading a lot the last year. Some of the books held up very well, some didn’t. I have been thinking about why books held up and why they didn’t. I have narrowed it down to three reasons why a book doesn’t held up:
- I don’t like the direction the author takes the series in later books – There are some authors whose writing I love but I don’t like the direction of the series in later books. For me that makes it much harder to go back and re-read the previous books. Believe me, I have tried a couple of times.
- My tastes have changed – I am not the same person that I was when I was when I was twenty, so if I re-read a book that I bought when I was 22, there is a chance that I will not like it now. ( And yes, I have wondered sometimes if that means I will enjoy books I didn’t enjoy when I was twenty.)
- I have re-read the book too many times – Yeah. There are some books cough Covenant by Lorna Freeman cough that I have simply re-read so many times that I know the story by heart. And one big reason is because I’m waiting for the next book in the series..
It is rarely just one factor that makes me put down a book that I’m re-reading, though.
As for strategies to avoid it, I don’t have any. I just accept that not all books are for me, even if I have loved other books by the author.
To be fair, the books that I don’t like is a minority of the books that I have re-read lately. There are some authors I know I will like no matter how many times I re-read them.
- The Guardian series by Meljean Brook
- Memory, Sorrow, Thorn by Tad Williams
- The Celta series by Robin D Owens
- The Elantra Chronicles by Michelle Sagara
- The Sianim novels by Patricia Briggs
I think that what changes is not my initial happiness with the book–that’s with me no matter what. I’m not still the tiny toddler who wanted Cowboy Andy read to her over and over again, but the joy I had from that book then can’t be taken away from me just because it doesn’t delight my present self. Keeping that firmly in mind helps me to avoid disappointment, because I’m not judging and throwing away my past reading experiences, I’m having new ones, even when they’re rereads.
One of the disappointments I don’t hear talked about much is when you realize that a book you had hoped would have a sequel will not, and all the dangling plot threads and tantalizing glimpses are all you’ll ever get. Obviously this isn’t a social justice issue like finding racism or sexism in something you loved as a child, but it can certainly change how amazing and exciting a book feels. Author death is one of the obvious reasons for this, or not getting another contract, but sometimes an author just does not feel like writing more with those characters or that world, and that’s that–and then a book that feels like it’s opening up a bunch of new possibilities has to stand on its own.
I had a wonderful thing happen with one disappointing reread. I remembered Prince Caspian as being crammed full of astronomy. In my memory, it was practically half astronomy and badgers. There were several detailed astronomical elements that I just adored in memory. When I reread Prince Caspian, I realized with a shock that the astronomy in it covers maybe five minutes of reading time, tops, if you go slow. I was crushed, and then suddenly–wonderful, wonderful! Because most of the astronomy in it is mine–I made it up with layers of memory over the years–so nobody but me will read the thing I’m working on now and think, “That’s just a ripoff of Prince Caspian.” (Jury is still out on whether I will find a place for badgers.)
My most recent successful reread was of Pamela Dean’s Secret Country trilogy. They are everything I love about portal fantasy, and I remembered the prose voice well enough to have several specific lines down verbatim–a good sign that they were not going to have turned into clunkers when I wasn’t looking. I have also found that Lois McMaster Bujold’s >Memory is still as heart-wrenching as it was the first time through. That’s a book I seem to be growing into rather than out of as I know more older people with memory issues.
Since becoming a writer, there are a number of books that I’ve reread that I loved as a kid and didn’t hold up so well. On the other hand, others have actually grown on me. For example: Ray Bradbury’s works. When I was young my favorite was Something Wicked This Way Comes. I read Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles too, but I enjoyed Something Wicked more than I did the others. Now, all of them take my breath away—particularly Fahrenheit 451. I’m more sensitive to the language now. I’m more aware of the craftsmanship involved, and as I progress as a writer I’m more and more impressed. Another writer I adored as a kid is Zilpha Keatley Snyder. I reread The Changeling, Season of Ponies, and The Witches of Worm a few years ago, and all of them have held up. They’re all just as haunting. Frank Herbert’s Dune is another, and so is Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
I don’t actually have any strategies when rereading—other than to stop if it does look like the book isn’t going to live up to my memory of it. Sometimes, as with the Snyder books, I’m teleported back in time, and I get a bit of insight on why the book meant so much to me at the time. That’s nice, actually. Joan Aiken is every bit as wonderful now as she was when I was a kid. Stephen King is even more powerful. I reread Carrie, and The Shining too. They’re fantastic. I’m in awe of King’s character development skills and psychological analysis of horror. All in all, when I reread a book I look for not only what I saw in it as a child, I also look for any new lessons. Often I’m surprised by what I find.
My most notable and malicious visit from the suck fairy concerned David Eddings’s The Belgariad. Five books long, not even counting the sequel quintet The Malloreon. It’s the worst because of how utterly passionately I loved this series when I first read it, around the age of nine – and I did love it. I loved it, I reread it dozens of times, I used it as a name source for my D&D characters, and it even shaped the stories I wrote in my spare time. The books stayed on my bookshelf at home when I went to college, enshrined among the stuffed animals and participation trophies.
Ten years later, when I moved out of my last crappy apartment and finally had all the shelf space I’d dreamed of, I rescued my books from my old bedroom and made the fatal error – I sat down to reread them.
The characters felt wooden. The worldbuilding felt flat. The endless, stifling, lockstep presence of set-in-stone prophesies drove me absolutely crazy. It was heartbreaking – I had loved these books for so long, and remembered them with such fondness – how could I reread them and consider them complete junk?
The suck fairy is cruel because it makes us doubt our own history – if I’d loved Eddings, then loathed him, what did that say about my taste in books? Was everything I remembered so fondly and referenced as a defining literary experience based on faulty readership and shoddy preferences? Was my current taste in books equally suspect? It’s a line of thought that is maddening, and as a writer is extremely upsetting.
There is only one thing to cling to when the suck fairy strikes during a reread – and that is that the suck fairy is, at the end of the day, meaningless. The book that is in your hands has not changed in the intervening years – YOU have changed, and will continue to change as the years pass. You once found things in the book that made you fall in love – and while those things are no longer there for you, they will still be there for someone else. In fact, you might come back to the book further down the line and discover that the anti-suck fairy has been at work, and the book appeals to you again. After my disappointing re-read of The Belgariad, I looked at another series that Eddings had written, The Elenium, which I had basically written off in my teens, and found that I liked it much more. The main character was a battered veteran knight, rather than a bumpkin farm boy, the magic system was more interesting, and there was a refreshing absence of prophesies. Things that bored me as an adolescent now held my interest.
The books that do defy the suck fairy and continue to entrance you (for me, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, and Emma Bull’s War For The Oaks), will become more precious to you even as things you once loved die by the way-side, and you’re left with one final, important piece of introspection:
I owned how many Nancy Drew books? Did I not even know what the word “formulaic” meant?
This is an interesting one as I’m hard put to think of an SF or Fantasy instance where I last bumped into the Suck Fairy on a reread. Possibly because I’m so picky about what I do reread. I get through so many books that I only ever revisit a fraction of them, and I find I do that even less the older I get. These days my re-reading is mostly refuge reading; when I’m tired or fed up or unwell, or taking a conscious break from genre reading and associated wrangles. So I stick with tried and tested favourites.
That does still sometimes require a deliberate switching off of my more cynical instincts. I reread Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael books over the last Christmas/New Year break and found the recurrent love-at-first sight plots meant I had to buy into a more optimistic view of human nature than I mostly feel day-to-day. Likewise with Rosemary Harris’s The Moon in the Cloud trilogy, I have to remind myself of the child I was when I first read the story and shut a mental door on the critical author I am now, who would probably demand harder edges and more complexity in those characters.
But overall, I still find those books sufficiently enjoyable and having other merits to make that effort worthwhile, especially when I’m wanting a mental holiday. Where I think I’m going to have to make too many compromises like that, I simply don’t bother. It’s been quite a while since I reread Larry Niven and longer still since I reread any Heinlein. I find it hard to imagine ever rereading the Darkover books in the light of the most recent revelations about Marion Zimmer Bradley.
That said, the books I reread most of all are Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books and those require no such adjustments. Indeed, I often spot new subtleties amid the familiarities which make them even more rewarding.
There are books I’ve reread for work-related purposes where I’ve encountered not so much the Suck Fairy as the Great British Imperial Racism Fairy. When I reread H Rider Haggard’s She as I worked on my story for the Resurrection Engines steampunk anthology a while ago, I was startled to see quite how blatant the bigotry is. The same thing happened when I reread the original Tarzan novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. These are tales reflecting their time after all. But I honestly didn’t remember seeing all that when I first read these books in my teens. What stayed with me was the adventure and the danger and the sense of wonder and possibilities. So in one sense that’s reassuring. I didn’t absorb those attitudes wholesale so we can be hopeful for kids today as they’re exposed to problematic writing, film and TV.
How did I handle seeing just how biased that world view is? I tackled it head on, making it a main theme in my story and drawing on suffragist and other dissenting voices from the time by way of inspiration. I’ve done the same with my other stories drawing on classics of Victorian and Edwardian Literature, because thankfully reading historical research from the intervening decades has taught me that there have always been people fighting back against exclusion and prejudice. They may have struggled to make much headway but they were always there.
I think that’s the most important thing about rereading. When you encounter something problematic, you don’t gloss over it. Yes, you can point out that it’s a feature of that book’s time and place in the ongoing development of the genre. That may explain it but it doesn’t excuse it. It absolutely doesn’t excuse prejudices being lazily repeated without being examined just because that’s the way the greats were doing it in the way back when. That was then and this is now and we should be writing books for the here and now to keep SF&F moving forward into the future instead of stagnating.