Tuesday, 3 August 2010

"If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all."

My post title today is a quote from Oscar Wilde (possibly the most quotable writer that ever lived). And I agree with him completely. I'm a dedicated re-reader. Any book that I enjoyed reading will get re-read at least once - books I loved will usually be re-read again and again throughout the rest of my life. No matter how cleverly written a novel is, if I can't imagine myself re-reading it then it has failed for me on a crucial level.

Since I first read it in 2005, I've revisited The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold around once a year, and each time I learn more from LMB's mastery of subtle and complex plotting, and her ability to create bone-deep empathy for her characters. I usually re-read the entire works of Jane Austen once every two years, and, again, each time I learn more from Ms Austen's superb craftmanship and control of language. Despite the fact that I first discovered Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones when I was about eight, when I re-read it again recently (probably for around the twelfth time) it still made me laugh out loud - and stop to think deeply about the puzzles within.

That's how good those books are. And that's one reason to re-read; to learn.

However, when I recently re-read Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy (a favourite of mine from when they were first published) I found myself pulling the books to pieces in a way I never had before. While I still enjoyed them, I realised with some astonishment that my own skills as a critical reader (and possibly a writer) must have grown since the last reading around three years ago, and that knowledge pleased me deeply.

Another reason to re-read; to measure your own growth.

The received wisdom on this topic is that writers ought to read each book twice - once for pleasure, once to learn. Which is fine advice for writers. But I also think that, as a reader, no matter how good your reading comprehension is, how subtle your insight or how quick your grasp of facts, there's just no way anyone can get everything from a book on the first try. Not unless the book is completely one dimensional. You have to realise, as a reader, that the scene you just read in ten minutes may have taken the writer months to craft. Each painstakingly chosen word, each carefully placed punctuation mark, the rhythm of the sentences, the tone, the hidden meanings, the obvious meanings - those consumed the entire mind and imagination of the writer for hours at a time. Their words are telling you more than you realise. If you only read once, you're short-changing yourself out of all those extra layers of meaning.

The third reason to re-read; so that you experience the actual entirety of a book, rather than just its surface.

So why, these days, am I seeing so many young writers saying - nay, boasting - that they don't bother to re-read? I'll be pootling along, reading a fun blog entry about favourite books, and suddenly I'll come to a screeching halt as the writer proudly announces that a certain book was so good that they 'actually considered reading it more than once'. WHAT?

If you love a book, why in the world would you banish yourself from its world and characters forever once you've read it? If you admire the author, how can you imagine that you've managed to grasp the full depth of their creation in only one read?

How can you possibly learn from books if you only read them once?

And it doesn't matter to me if you're a fast reader or a slow reader. It doesn't matter to me if you've got an amazing memory and you can quote whole pages of dialogue three years after reading the book. Because any book that's worth reading once is worth reading twice. Any book that you enjoyed reading twice will probably repay further readings too. So although I normally hate to make sweeping generalisations or judge people, I'm going to go ahead and take a stand here. It is flat out stupid to only read books once.

I want to force these writers to go and pick up that book they blithely listed as a favourite and force them to read it again and see if they even still like it, five or ten years after the original reading. And if they do, can they possibly deny that somehow, since they last entered that author's world, it has magically and inexplicably changed?

This is the fourth and perhaps most important reason why any book worth reading is worth reading twice. Because our interpretation of every line, scene, event, plot twist and character is coloured by who we are. Books are subjective. They come to life in the writer's imagination, but it is the reader's imagination that resurrects them when they open the pages. You cannot read a book without bringing yourself to it, without the spark of life within you transferring to the characters within the story. And if you're human, you're changing all the time. I'm an utterly different person now than I was two years ago, four years ago, eight years ago. If I met twenty year old me now I'd probably want to strangle her. Which means that when I pick up a book I read two years ago, four years ago, eight years ago, I'm not just re-reading it. I'm reading it for the first time as the me I am now. In a very real way, it's a whole new book.

A book I will never get the chance to read if I arrogantly dismiss it as old news, just because I've opened it before.

My plea to you, young writers: re-read. Please. Do it today. Pick a favourite, a book you remember fondly, and give it another chance. You might love it, you might hate it, you might barely recognise or remember it. But you'll never know if you don't pick it up again.

P.S. This blog is actually Wednesday's, posted early because I'm off to frisk and frolic with some awesometastic writer pals tomorrow. Whee!


Alex Mullarky said...

I totally agree with you! Sometimes people look at me like ??? when I say I'm re-reading a book and don't seem to understand why. But I always like to put them away for a few years first so I can feel like I'm reading them for the first time all over again :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you. I told my friends about this post today, and they both stared at me like I was mad, then said 'Why would anyone NOT re-read books???' I was so relieved they agreed with me! Not re-reading is madness. Madness, I say!

Megha said...

I don't mean to be mad, but...
Hey, I've made a resolution to re-read books!
Check out my blog: meghaz.wordpress.com. I've written a whole article dedicated to you!

Pssst. I'm not serious about being angry at you.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you - since I'm writing the DotF sequel at the moment it's encouraging to read that you've liked the first one enough to dedicate a whole post to it!

By the way, I don't re-read books straight away; sorry if I gave that impression. But if I liked a book I'll nearly always save it and read it again *at some point*. And if I still like or love it after that, I will keep on re-reading it periodically, until I stop loving it or it falls to pieces.

Anonymous said...

Oh. Erm... this is awkward.

Zoë Marriott said...

No it isn't! Don't worry :)

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