Last week I did a book review for 1984 — a book which I stated having already read four times. I read an article this morning that made me think a little more deeply about why some of us re-read some books and not others. Is there any benefit in reading something more than once? Spoilers aren’t the only disappointments that can go along with multiple readings. The answers to why someone would re-read a book probably vary as much as people and the books they choose to read. But I was curious, so jotted down some of my own reasoning.
Let’s start with the obvious disappointment — spoilers. The reason I don’t re-read most books (or re-watch most movies) is because I already know what’s going to happen. I can NOT know what’s going to happen. So, the element of surprise, the plot twist, the freshness of getting to know new characters, the shock of losing a character, the absolute immersion of that first read is forever lost after the initial curiosity has been explored and satisfied. It’s a wonder anyone purchases any book or film based on that alone. Checking them out at a library or renting a view from Netflix will do for most one-time stories.
Another category of disappointments might be more personal. Perhaps I outgrew a book I loved as a child. Perhaps my ideology changed. Perhaps my education or life experience turned me in a different direction. It’s hard to appreciate fairy tales or romances in which the prince and princess live “happy ever after” when facing divorce because “forever love” becomes as credible a concept as unicorn poop. A doctor might read about a fictional wound and be critical of the author’s lack of real medical knowledge. Or a scientist might point out a flaw in a sci-fi or fantasy setting. Or perhaps a white author’s attempt to portray a black character is handled in a way that the reader finds offensive. These little annoyances can often be forgiven during initial reads because we’re distracted by other stuff going on, or we were too young or inexperienced to know or care. But as we grow and change, details like that can get under the skin like a pebble trapped in a shoe.
The third kind of disappointments with re-reading can be more mundane, namely time and energy. If my time and energy are limited, then I have to make choices about what I read, how much I read at a time, and consider why I’m reading it so that I can prioritize. I used to spend my high school summers lying in the backyard with a stack of sci-fi library books because the only reading I could do during the school year was school related. Summer was for MY reading list, and aside from part-time jobs, I had all the time in the world to delve into imaginative worlds. Now, I can barely squeeze in 30 minutes before bed, and even that’s not a guarantee every night. Do I really want to spend my precious 30 minutes re-reading something I’ve already read, rather than exploring something new? And if I’m tired, can I stick with it if it’s not fresh?
In spite of the reasons for not bothering to read books a second time … I do. I think perhaps the main reason for this is because I grew up loving books as if they were best friends. I’m an only child and spent most of my childhood reading, writing, drawing, and making music to keep myself entertained without having to rely on other people. Later I added language and culture studies to my alone-time interests. I went to the library once a week and came home with — literally — armloads of books, some that that were new, others that I had already read multiple times. I handled them with care, never dog-earing a page, never writing in them, never letting them get wet, always returning them on time … so that they would be there when I wanted them again. I was a member of several book clubs in and out of school, and I looked forward each month to receiving my little cardboard box in the mail or ordering through the Scholastic catalog. Books were treats, fond memories, comforts always there for me, even when people were not. I kept some of those book club favourites, and looking through them now is like looking through a family photo album. I can remember how old I was, where I lived, and what my interests were during my first read. Growing up, it becomes harder to make time for old friends, but familiarity and comfort are probably my number one reasons for keeping old books and reading them more than once.
My second most prominent reason for re-reading is depth. This is what applies to re-reads like 1984. My first read was in high school, and it was assigned, and it was taught with a particular political and religious bias because of the school I attended. I appreciated this book because it was a good dystopian story, but admittedly, most of the details were memorized for a test or writing a book report. When I had to read it a second time under college direction, my personal circumstances had changed. I realized much of the first read went over my head. And my disposition in life was different by then for a number of reasons. It felt like I was reading a hidden layer underneath the obvious one. I liked that. I was seeing things that made me pause and re-think interpretations I’d been taught. I was seeing parallels to other books and historical or current events. The third time I read the book, I was the teacher, so I dug even deeper. And this most recent fourth read went even deeper still. Every time I read this book I see a new layer of details and intangible subject matter. Books that evoke that kind of response deserve to be called classics and should be read more than once.
But perhaps the best reason for re-reading a book is the most simple: fun. It doesn’t have to be a childhood favourite or a literary masterpiece. Sometimes if it was fun the first time, it can be fun again for the same reasons you found it entertaining in the first place. Really that is the ultimate reason why we read fiction in the first place — for entertainment. If the book does nothing more than that, it has still done its job of providing a pleasant activity for a short time. Fandoms are built upon this kind of devotional investments in fictional worlds and characters. And in non-fiction, inspirational, practical, or academic refreshing of knowledge is always beneficial. I am currently reading Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You, and I can already tell I will be re-reading that one many times over for the remainder of my life. It’s so relative to me, personally.
If my forever home could have a floor-to-ceiling, grand library to keep all the books that I ever loved, I’d probably never use any other room in the house, except to eat, sleep, and shower. Realistically, I know I’d never be able to re-read that many books. I’d be desperate for new material, so why I hoard old books is a mystery to me. But every room in my current house has at least one bookshelf filled with books that I have either re-read, or that I intend to “someday” re-read. Some I hang onto for reference. Others I hang onto for memories and pleasure. And when I move into my next home, though it will be much smaller, I know I will have a hard time parting with many of my favourite books due to lack of space. I can’t imagine not having books available for re-reading.