Friday, 3 June 2011

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

Hello, dear readers! Congratulations on having survived the week this far. Today I once again bring you a beautfully aged morsel of wisdom, unearthed from the archives of July last year, in the form of:

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

My 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 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.

17 comments:

Rebecca said...

This is such an interesting post! I love to re-read books and I do notice changes from when I first read them but I never really thought of it in the way you described it :) I like to think that books hold memories too. When I re-read Inkheart last year I remembered that I first bought it in newcastle three years before and read it on the way home in the car and when I did re-read it last year I did notice that my reading had improved since them.
I love to re-read Daughter of the Flames once or twice a year, it's one of my favourite books and I get completely lost in it :) The second time I read it I noticed that one of Zahira's scars, above her eyes, was in the shape of an S which I thought was really sweet because it was like an S for Sorin and as soon as her old life ended with the fire, Sorin was engraved to be in her new life. I hope I got that right :)
What's your favourite book to re-read? :)

Zoë Marriott said...

You're the *first* person to have noticed that about Zira's scar, Rebecca! Well done! Re-reading honestly is the best way to get to know the books you love. I've listed a couple of my favorite re-reads there in the post, but really, as I said, any books I loved will get re-read probably several times.

borky_qk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
borky_qk said...

Ok. I will not lie. Frankly, I do not remember re-reading a book.But as soon as I read the book, which I'm on now, I will reread "The Spiderwick Chronicles". In fact, with them I began to love books.

Zoë Marriott said...

Well, take this as a challenge, Borko. Pick some other book that you really remember fondly, and give re-reading it a go. You might love it!

Megha Z said...

Zoe: I'm sure you remember that last time I said that I did not enjoy re-reading! Ah, how I have grown... You know what I mean. xP I enjoy re-reading so much now! It's so fun to go back to a book, and have the adventure all over again. I have really changed. xP

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: Then my work here is done. *Beams aboard spaceship*

Isabel said...

:( I'm not a big re-reader... there, I said it. I really don't re-read very much. I read much more slowly than you! I have so many *new* books that I want to read!!! I know it's no good reason -- I really WISH I found re-reading really fun, and maybe I don't just because I don't try it very much. So maybe, one of these days -- NOT a promise -- when I have nothing else to read (I mean, one of these YEARS -- take a good look at that to-read pile) I'll give it a shot! I want to! I just don't... have the guts, I guess. :P Sorry...

Zoë Marriott said...

Well, that's OK, Isabel - not everyone is the same, and I suppose there might be some people who genuininely can't enjoy re-reading. But it sounds to me more like you've never tried, which is a shame. Think about some book that you've absolutely loved, a book that you never wanted to end and when it DID, you wished you had it to read all over again. Now imagine that you DO have it to read all over again! Try picking a book you've not read for years and years, and just re-read the first page. I bet you'll find that you want to read on - and I bet you'll find that the book seems both comfortingly familiar and new and strange. Honestly. It's awesome.

Megha Z said...

It's much more fun to re-read after a long time, Izzy. If you want to wait for a while, or re-read a book you haven't read for AGES, that would be MORE fun because the book won't be so fresh in your mind. You can wait - you have time. :)

I'm encouraged to re-read a lot more by the fact that I'm a part book-reviewer/blogger and that means that I try to do reviews on books that I especially like and want to encourage people to read again and again! But I have to have that book WITH me; I need a copy of it so I can check for anything I don't like, and my reviews can be thorough. Of course, that's not the ONLY reason I re-read; I do it for fun. It's awesome going back to a book.

Isabel said...

Zoe and Megha: I actually used to re-read a little more when I was younger... for example, in second grade I was completely obsessed with this story -- as an almost-twelve year old now I would probably think it was really bad -- called Once Upon a Marigold. I re-read it several times... I admit that on a few occasions when I have re-visited an old favorite I found it really interesting to see it from a new point of view... so, yes, I really should re-read more often. However, there is this thing about reading a story for the first time -- not knowing what will happen next and holding your breath in anticipation -- that you don't have the second time around. But, like Megha, I'll probably change... reading a book for the second or third time is a completely new experience.

Megha Z said...

Well, yes, there is a lot less of the anticipation for the ending, but if a book is good, it'll still raise the hair on your neck every time. :-) And anyway, since you know what is going to happen, you get to concentrate on the minor details the second time around!

Elise Stephens said...

Zoe, you make an excellent point. It's hard for those of us (like me) who have so many new books to read it's hard to imagine re-reading other books. But I'm also feeling the nudge in the back of my head that tells me I have full permission to reread those books that I've already read and would love to step into again. So thank you for standing so strongly for this. It's done us all good.

Zoë Marriott said...

Elise: Sometimes when I'm facing a huge pile of new books, full of new angst and new dramas, I just feel really overwhelmed and I end up not reading anything. I think a lot of people experience this - TBR paralysis. You end up messing around on the internet or wasting time in some unfulfilling way. When that happens, much better to take a step back and re-read an old favourite than end up watching mindless daytime TV or something, right?

Isabel said...

Megha: (sorry for only seeing this now :P) Well said! That's certainly true. :)

Ashley said...

Love this post Zoe! I am a very dedicated rereader! I reread old favorites regularly. I always have been. I had my set 'go to' books for when I was bored, and I had a few books in the library that I would check out every couple of weeks, or maybe once a month.

And then, in 4th grade, my teacher read us Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls and I fell in LOVE! It was the first book I really connected with, the first book that really touched something new inside me. Since then, I've read that book well over 50 times. Sigh. There's just something so incredibly special about revisiting that book. It's been over a year since my last reread... Maybe it's time to pick it back up. :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Hurray! The joy of re-reading is alive and well!

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