Literary Explorations: When to Re-read?

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Today, I had a strange moment of contemplation:  since I don’t re-read books all that often, I wondered about the criteria for re-reading and what re-reading does to our perception of the work.  Do we re-read books we simply love, or are there certain elements that compel re-reading?  And what happens to a book when we re-read it (or to ourselves, for that matter)?

But as I thought about this subject, it occurred to me that re-reading is a personal affair.  After all, my reasons for re-reading a book may not coincide with yours, in part because we’re not the same person, but also because there are probably thousands of reasons why people re-read (and no two reasons are necessarily the same).  For example, most of my re-reading falls into the following categories:

  • Books for my research or teaching (PhD stuff, in particular — Tobias Buckell and Nalo Hopkinson will have been re-read at least 6 times in the last three years)
  • Books I’ve loved (when I was a kid, I re-read the Goosebumps and Hardy Boys books over and over and over)
  • Books I’ve found compelling and decided to re-read to get at some of the things I didn’t see last time (such as 1984)
Your reasons?  Similar, perhaps, but also varied, I imagine.  It’s not often that I re-read a book for any other reason than one of the ones listed above, and the kinds of books that fall into these various categories vary by content and genre.  Research books are often spread across genres, from mainstream to SF/F to theory to history and so on.  Most of the books I’ve decided to read because I wanted to get deeper into the work are of the classic variety — usually works of genre that exist outside the Pulp Era paradigm, such as 1984, Brave New World, various works from the New Wave (Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany in particular) and so on.  And those works that I re-read because I love them tend to have a nostalgic flare to them, from some of my favorite children’s books to those few works that got me obsessed with SF/F in the first place.
But I don’t do a lot of re-reading.  All in all, I’ve probably only re-read 5% of the books on my “have read” list.  There are good reasons for this too.  My shelves are full of unread books; unless I read something that knocks my socks off, I’m not likely to return to it (for an unspecific time, since I am not currently dead).  Why re-read when you can have new adventures?
Of course, re-reading has its own advantages.  When you re-read, you discover new things.  I’ve read 1984 five times.  It’s not a book for everyone, but I find that re-reading it exposes a lot of elements and themes that I never noticed before.  Undoubtedly, that has something to do with age.  Some books, I think, open up like flowers the further away from the first reading experience you get.  1984 is one of those books (for me).
But is there also a time when you shouldn’t re-read?  I’ve heard people say that Lord of the Rings is a great book to read as a teenager, but also that it loses its luster as you age.  I have no opinion on that particular point (for now), but I do think there are some books that deserve to remain as memories.  After all, a great deal of the stuff we loved as younger people certainly changes in tone as we age and become more knowledgeable about the world.  I know some of the kid’s books I recall reading over and over will probably look like sub-literature to my current self.  For me, keeping the image of so many great reading experiences is more important that indulging my curiosity.
What about you?  Do you re-read?  If so, when and why?  Do you think there is a way to tell when you shouldn’t re-read something for your own good?

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

One thought on “Literary Explorations: When to Re-read?

  1. For me it primarily boils down to books that I know I've read but have very little memory of the actual content. WATERSHIP DOWN is a recent example – I read it when I was young, but could recall the animated film much better than the book, so decided it was time to revisit the book.

    Occasionally there are books that I revisit whenever I decide to read an author's works in some kind of order (which I did with Michael Moorcock not too long ago and am now doing with Philip Jose Farmer). Or there's a sequel I want to read but it's been far too long since I read the original (which I plan to do with a Mark Frost and Clive Barker book and which I did with Stephen King's Dark Tower series once it was finally complete).

    Lastly I think any book that is heavily political, no matter how souped up with the fantastical, can be the most rewarding again and again because chances are the content and its meaning has shifted alongside our own cultural and personal evolution. I've been wanting to re-read Mark Helprin's A WINTER'S TALE and the HIS DARK MATERIALS fantasy trilogy for this reason. The FOUNDATION series as well I may re-read one day, though not too soon (I need more time).

    What I never seem to do is re-read solely because i had a positive experience the first time. Some amount of memory loss or inability discuss the material in a modern context is necessary before I devote the time to read an entire novel (or series) all over again. Like you, I have shelves upon shelves of books yet to be read for the first time.

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