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The Perils of Re-Reading

on February 24, 2010

Yes, books can be dangerous. Just ask school boards nationwide. But what I’m talking about is more insidious and also based in reality. You see, for every book I re-read, that’s one less new book I have time for. Obvious, I know, but still shocking when I realize just how far behind I am on current releases, not to mention classics and everything in between.

Reading the latest and greatest didn’t used to seem like a big deal, but the deeper I get into writing, the more obvious it is that I need to have a much more thorough knowledge of my chosen genre. For instance, the list of Nebula and Norton nominees just came out, and I’ve read shockingly few of them. Some of them are in my physical or virtual to-be-read piles and some I’d never heard of. I had the same experience a while ago when reading a thread on classic fantasy on the Absolute Write forums. I hadn’t heard of most of the books being discussed. So now I have a Barnes and Noble wishlist called “Fantasy I Should Have Already Read”, and I try to add one or two from that list to every order.

But I’m still re-reading, because it’s such a crutch for me. Retreating into an old favorite is like cuddling with my favorite blankie as a kid. It’s soft and comfortable and fits easily into the space I’ve already made for it. A lot of re-reading is about revisiting states of mind, whether that’s relief that a character’s painful life isn’t mine or awe at the delicious twist of a writer’s words.

Another reason I re-read is that I don’t trust my memory, especially when it comes to the earlier books in a series. Sometimes it’s because I tear through a book too fast and finish it at four a.m. when my eyes are glued permanently open. Often it’s because, as a writer, I’m so conscious of the way the smallest details impact the story. If there’s a critical detail in book one that will dramatically unfold in book two, then I want to remember it so I can have all the fun of making wild predictions as I read. Unfortunately, that means I still haven’t read the latest Harry Dresden book, nearly a year after it came out. I feel like I should re-read the first ten or whatever books, because I read them so fast I have a hard time differentiating one from the others.

But I also re-read to learn the craft of writing. When the first thrill of the story is over (though the best writers make me feel that thrill again and again), I have the space in my head to figure out why I love this character so much it hurts or why that plot makes me skip ahead to the best parts instead of being caught up by the whole story. Learning a craft is about studying the masters, and I do take that seriously. But I’m not sure anyone needs to read The Complete Sherlock Holmes twenty times. (And I’m not even exaggerating.)

Obviously, the solution is to re-read sometimes and read new stuff other times. To encourage myself, I’ve made an effort to buy more books lately instead of relying on the library. Partly this is because I’ve grown more conscious of writing as business and want to support my favorite authors. Partly it’s so I always have new books on hand and no excuses.

I haven’t come up with the perfect new to old ratio, because that would be a little crazy even for me, but every time I look at an old book and think how nice it would be to re-read it, I’m going to think about what I really want. Do I want a medieval fantasy setting like The Lord of the Rings? A character like Phaedra from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books who challenges and engages? A plot like any of Jim Butcher’s books that grabs me by the throat and leaves me gasping at the end? Something in Roger Zelazny’s style? Thanks to the wonders of the internet, it’s relatively easy to find a book to cure my craving. Not to mention the books by my favorite authors (Zelazny) that I have accumulated but not yet read.

So am I completely crazy? Is anyone else this conflicted about re-reading? Or does everyone else read a book, shelve it, and move on to the next?

5 Responses to “The Perils of Re-Reading”

  1. Voyagefan says:

    I have re-read SO many different books. I’ve read Anthony Horowitz’s “Stormbreaker” two times. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve re-read the Maximum Ride books by James Patterson. And I’ve read a lot of the sequences in the last Percy Jackson book tons of times. And my friend is always telling me about all of the good books that I’m missing. So, yeah, I’m conflicted with re-reading…

  2. Beth says:

    Mmm… It all depends on the book. It’s weird, because I can read a book and absolutely adore it, but never read it again. Case in point, I’ve only read the Twilight series once, I’ve only read through the entire Harry Potter series once (although I’ve read books 4 and 6 twice…)… In contrast, I’ve read “Hounds of the Morrigan” by Pat O’Shea countless times, and I must have gone through the Little House and Wizard of Oz books at least five times each when I was a kid. But oddly enough, I don’t think I’ve missed out on any new books. I’m pretty up to date on the newest releases, particularly the fantasy ones. I think I’ve achieved a good balance between re-reading and reading new material.

  3. Voyagefan says:

    I forgot to add that I’ve read ALL of the Percy Jackson books at least twice. Sorry to be inconvenient, with posting a second comment…

  4. C.S. Swarts says:

    And you’ve both said you re-read books I’ve not read . . . I guess I’ll add a few more to my list :)

    Beth, that’s a good point about some books being more re-readable than others. I re-read all the Harry Potter books before each new one came out, but I haven’t read them again since. And that’s great that you’re able to find a balance!

  5. C.S. Swarts says:

    That’s no problem with the second comment, Voyagefan. I have meant to read the Percy Jackson books for a while, but now I’m seeing people talk about them everywhere (and not just in conjunction with the move), I think I might have to bump them up my list.

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