To read or to re-read?

RepeatThere was a column published recently by Stuart Kelly in the Guardian newspaper here in the UK, that got me thinking about my reading habits. More particularly it got me thinking about my re-reading habits. Or rather the lack of them.

Kelly was one of the judges for this year’s Man Booker Prize which meant he got to read rather a lot of novels. He read all 151 submitted novels once but then, because of the way the judging process works, he read the 13 longlisted novels again. And then read six of those a third time in order to chose the ultimate winner. It was a process which made him realise that he seldom re-reads contemporary novels.  Classics yes, but modern day fiction – very rarely.

It was something I’d never really considered before but now I too have come to the same realisation as Kelly. I hardly ever read a book more than once. I can count on two hands the books I’ve read twice. Those I’ve read more than twice are even more rare, particularly when I discount texts I had to read for school or university. I can actually only think of six books I’ve read multiple times because I wanted to do so:

Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion 

George Eliot: Middlemarch

Emile Zola: Germinal 

Paul Scott: Jewel in the Crown

Anthony Trollope: The Warden & Barchester Towers

Not much in that list that could remotely be considered ‘modern’ let alone contemporary. In fact there is only one that was published in the twentieth century (Paul Scott).

And yet I have scores of books at home that I’ve been reluctant to give away because “I want to read that again”.  So why don’t I? That’s a question that’s been running through my brain as I’ve been driving to work.

As Kelly says, some types of book just don’t lend themselves to more than one read. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction but when I do, once I’ve discovered who the murderer is and how the crime was committed, I don’t have a lot of interest in going back to it a few years later.  Nothing will have changed, the murderer will still be the murderer and the way they committed the crime is still the same . Literary fiction on the other hand offers many more possibilities for discovering something new in the text.

So maybe I don’t re-read because somehow I don’t consider modern day fiction on a par with those classics from the nineteenth century?.  A convenient answer but wrong. I don’t happen to believe literature more than 100 years ago was necessarily ‘better’  any more than I think that every summer in my childhood was warm and sunny (although  I remain firmly of the opinion that when it comes to tomatoes,they actually were more tasty in the past. On that point I refuse to budge). Nor do I believe the old masters were more creative or more inventive than their modern counterparts.   I don’t happen to enjoy his work but there is no denying the innovation in narrative techniques coming from Will Self for example, or the freshness of voice and ways of seeing the world evident in the writers on Granta’s Best Young British Writers list. The ‘novel’ aspect of the novel isn’t confined to the UK either – some of the most enjoyable writers I’ve experienced this year are from Africa.

Then I started to wonder if the real reason I don’t re-read some books is because I’m afraid that a book I thoroughly enjoyed will not stand up to the scrutiny of a second read and I don’t want to dilute the pleasure of the first experience? A bit like going back to a restaurant where you had a wonderful meal only to find the service or the food wasn’t anywhere as good. Except each time I’ve returned to Middlemarch I’ve actually enjoyed it more, not less.

It took multiple journeys before the penny dropped. What really stops me re-reading is the lure of the unfamiliar.   There are just so many writers I have yet to discover and, thanks to the blogosphere, the list grows every day.   It’s so tempting to think that the very next author I read could become my favourite.  Old friends are set aside in favour of the new. I wonder whether that will ever change – that as I advance in years and face the reality that I only have so many reading hours left, will I change my affiliations and go back to those old familiar friends that are so comforting.

I’m curious whether my habits will change in the future. I’m also curious to hear your experiences of reading and re-reading….

End Note

Stuart Kelly’s article is here if you’re interested in what sparked my meditation.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on November 7, 2013, in Book Reviews and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I too reread a lot as a kid. Now – not so much. That said, I’ve reread The World According to Garp many times and just adore it. And I have plans to reread many books – but hardly ever do so. Although I recently reread Watership Down which I liked when reading it as a teenager but absolutely loved now.
    I think the lack of rereading is because of all the new exciting books – but especially because of the awareness of how many there really is. Before the Internet and thinks like Goodreads and book blogs, my wish list and to read list didn’t grow with the same alarming rate as they do now…

    • Im afraid Goodreads and blogs on books do have a lot to answer for. Like you, I never had as many books ‘waiting to be read’ as I have accumulated in the 18 months since I started blogging. And I still keep adding more which does mean I don’t get around to re-reading.

  2. I re-read quite a number of books during the year because of the book groups to which I belong. I will often find that other people who don’t have the same amount of time for reading that i do will choose books that I read when they first came out. For the most part I quite enjoy this because I can give my attention to attributes other than the plot, which because of my research interests is always going to take most of my attention on a first read. Just occasionally someone will suggest a book I seriously don’t want to read a second time. I find a rapidly puled face cane be very effective at that point 😉

    • it can be interesting to see a book you know through the eyes of another person. I’ve found through the book club that they pick up on character traits for example that I really missed.

  3. When I look back at the end of each year on what I have read I rarely have more than two or three books on the list that are rereads. It is, I think, mostly because I am more excited by reading something new to me than I am to read something I have already read and loved. There are usually one or two books each year that when I finish I think, that will make a good reread sometime. But the likelihood that I will reread it is slim. Because again, the new and unknown is more of a draw to me than exploring the depths and details of the more familiar. Which is sad really because the few books I have read more than three times grow more dear and special each time. And yet rereading remains a rare thing for me.

    • You captured the issue exactly Stefanie – the new and the unknown is more exciting than the well trodden ground. And yet when I do re-read, often I enjoy the experience

  4. As a child I always re-read my favourite stories! This year I have been trying to make more time to re-read old favourites because as an adult I rarely re-read books. As you said there are too many new books luring me instead 😛

    • thats true Jessica, I also did a lot of re-reading of books when I was a child but I didn’t have anywhere as many to choose from nor did pocket money stretch that far so it wasn’t like I was buying new ones regularly. I used the library instead to flesh out my own collections.

  5. I re-read a few books each year, but usually they can still be counted on the fingers of one hand. Lord of the Rings is the only book(s) I’ve ever read more than twice – current tally is 4x. Otherwise I’m more likely to re-read modern classics like Graham Greene, or F Scott Fitzgerald. I do find I enjoy these more literary novels when re-reading – getting different things out of them on the re-read.

    • I couldn’t get through Lord of the Rings once even. I see why it appeals but I never got into it when I was younger.
      Greene is someone I do want to re-read. First time around I rushed him because he was on the required uni reading list but it meant I never had the time to understand him.

  6. I rarely re-read be it classics or modern. There are just so many new books to reread, which is why I don’t stock an extensive library at home either.

    There are some comfort reads though…I classify writers like Georgette Heyer, Wodehouse, Christie in that list. These books are for when I am feeling down, or in a reading funk, and they always hit the sweet spot every time.

    Like you said, as I grow older, I may change my reading habits to revisit old favorites. I am quite curious to know which one of the many books I read now, I will want to reread later.

  7. There seems to be too much of everything these days, including too many unread books ahd less time to read the in.. Then there are all the books that you missed out on first time around. Like John William’s Stoner from 1965 which I have just read and enjoyed far more than many of the more recent offerings. Also pondering how your age affects what you enjoy reading. Would I have enjoyed Stoner so much 10, 20, 30 years ago ?

  8. Conversely, I always re-read my favourites (of which there are about 100!), perhaps because they are so comfortingly familiar. Although I am a voracious reader, constantly reading new things, I love to return to amazing books and find something new in them.

    What I find interesting about the reading process is how your mental and emotional state, level of tiredness, and other factors can really affect your opinion of a book. Re-reading can prove to be very enlightening, opening your eyes to themes, ideas and words you’d previously failed to notice/think about properly. I definitely recommend it!

  9. Your post made me realize that I do the same thing. I re-read classics all the time because I love them, but contemporary literature, not so much. Is it the reading snob in me? As it happens, my book club has selected a book I’ve already read so I will be re-reading a contemporary book (The Dinner by Herman Koch). Possibly for the first time.

    It’s so hard to go back and re-read books when your To Be Read list keeps getting longer and longer!

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