Thursday, 19 April 2012

On re-reading books

As I mentioned the other day, I very much enjoy sitting on trains with my head stuck in a book.  Anywhere will do, but trains are pretty good.

On Tuesday the book in question was Mockingjay (the third Hunger Games book), which I finished during the journey, and so I immediately began looking through my Kindle for something else to read.  I have another couple of books waiting to be read, but neither appealed.  I shut the thing off and stared out the window for a few minutes before I realised I really did want to read something else.  I turned it back on and looked through the list of books which I keep in a collection named "previously read".  Yep, my filing is that precise.

I thought about re-reading the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings, but my eyes alighted on Les Misérables and before I knew it I was ploughing through one of the literary world's answers to a mandelbrot set.

What is it about re-reading books that gives such satisfaction?

In this particular case, circumstances forced me to accept reading whatever was to hand, but in truth I wouldn't have begun if I hadn't wanted to.  Now that I've begun I simply have to finish it, being the completion freak I am (another of my autistic traits), and that's going to take a little while.

Quite aside from all of that, though, I think there is comfort in returning to books you've read and loved.  Reminding yourself of a particularly well-turned phrase is fun and, no matter how well you think you know a book, I find there are always little scenes or details which slip out of memory but delight you when you find them again.  Doing this with standard-length books yields an agreeable volume of this sort of pleasure, so imagine what Les Miz holds in store!  This isn't even the first time I've returned to a book I've read and been daunted by.

In about my third year at university I began a habit of re-reading Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum roughly every 18 months.  This is a complex book on many levels, not least of which is the English translator's quite advanced vocabulary.  I'll admit I began putting myself through this trial on a regular basis partly because I was an arsey Arts student, but the book does genuinely intrigue and entertain me as well.  It dovetails neatly with my small collection of religious conspiracy theory books and it's jam-packed with interesting arcana.

There are a number of other books or series on my regular re-read list, including the Hitch-hiker's Guide series, Julian May's Pliocene Exile and Galactic Milieu cycle and Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades. I return to these books partly out of the memory of the pleasure they gave on the first reading and partly out of the lack of anything better to read.  Yes, it's a kind of laziness, but it's pretty harmless, isn't it?

Well, in the last year or so I decided it wasn't actually all that harmless.  I found I was reading all the same old books in a stale kind of rotation, and just not reading a lot generally.

This changed when my dear friend published her novel The Chicken Thief and I simply had to buy it, even though it wasn't the sort of book I would have chosen to read had it been written by anyone else.  And yet I found that I enjoyed it enormously.  A penny dropped.  I realised I'd been missing so much by not breaking out of my secure little circle of books.

In the past year I've read around 30 books I never read before.  That's only slightly better than one every fortnight, but I'm someone who reads in his head at about the pace you might tolerate someone reading out loud, so for me that's something.  I've consumed some trashy True Blood novels, a bunch of biographies (which I always knew I loved, but never really used to go out of my way to find), some fantastic new fiction which defies categorisation (The Rook!), and had my lust for the written word (ahem) re-Kindled.

I'm not sorry that I re-read books.  Going back to Les Misérables, for instance, I'm rediscovering the amazing detail that Hugo put into each and every character.  I'm 5% through the book and he's still making his word-portrait of the Bishop!  Reliving those literary experiences, though, mustn't come at the expense of finding new ones to enjoy.


  1. Well I'm glad to have contributed to your radical break out phase! But really, you reread history of the crusades??? I don't think I even read that when we were supposed to.

    Have added The Rook to my reading list. That looks good.

    I used to be an obsessive finisher, but I'm coming round to believe that life is too short to persist with crap books, especially when there are so many brilliant ones out there to be discovered.

    1. Oh, the completion freak is an out of control thing - I bought the second and third volumes of Runciman (*not* on the reading list!) just so I could finish the whole thing! And when I read those, I read all the way through all three volumes! Haven't done it since about 2009 I think, but there you are. There's something in what you say about life being too short for crap books, but so far the completion freak is winning. :-(

  2. I love to re-read books, particularly in stressful times or when I'm really tired - it doesn't matter if I miss a bit. For the same reason, and because I never seem to stop studying (and believe me, work reading can be painful stuff), I can pick up a trashy series like True Blood or even (*gasp*) Twilight. I find it quite hard to start a new series or author because of the risk. I'm not really sure what the risk is, but bookshops full of books I have no introduction to are akin to going to a party where you only know the host. One of the reasons I love my Kindle is the free sample first chapters - I can dip in and decide if I want to continue the conversation, or leave quietly with nobody's feelings being hurt.
    But the times recently that I have taken the plunge, I've discovered new people I want to get to know, and new thinkings. I love new thinkings.

    1. I like the party simile. I find myself looking for books a recognise before checking out some of the other talent in the room. Even then it's hard to get past just perving. ;-) New thinkings is good.


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