To read or to re-read?

There 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.

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