Whatcha Re-Read?

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve read two Patricia McKillip works I hadn’t read before, the novel Kingfisher and the short story collection, Wonders of the Invisible World.

Places and People to Revisit

Places and People to Revisit

While I found much in both books to like, re-reading them made me crave the opportunity to re-read McKillip’s “Riddle of Stars” series (The Riddlemaster of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind).  Therefore, I pulled out an omnibus edition and happily re-entered the kitchen at Akren where Morgon and his siblings were in spirited debate.

As I slid into the story, I found myself thinking how very odd it is that reading may just be the only hobby related to an art form where people question or apologize for the desire to revisit a work of art.

I’ve heard some variation of the following so many times: “I know I have a lot of new books on my to-be-read shelf, but I just wanted to re-read this one.”  What’s very odd is I hear this even from those who read enough new material that they certainly shouldn’t feel a need to justify their choice.

No one would ever say this about repeatedly listening to an album, nor would anyone ever say “But why are you doing that?  You know all the songs by heart!”   Indeed, with music, most people seem impressed when someone knows all the songs by an artist, including the correct lyrics.  Equally, no one questions leaving the same painting or drawing on the wall for years and years.

Do viewers get criticized for re-watching a favorite show?  Movie-goers seem to get praised, rather than otherwise, for having seen the same film ten or twenty times.  In both cases, re-watching seems to be regarded as proof of their devotion, rather than otherwise.

So, why is re-reading viewed differently?  Why is the re-reader regarded as lazy or seeking a “comfort zone,” when repeated listening or viewing is considered admirable?

I have no idea.  All I know is that the reasons I re-read are many and varied.

How about the oft-mentioned and oft-disregarded “comfort” element?  Although I rarely re-read to put myself in a comfort zone, during a few very stressful periods of my life, I’ve certainly done so.  However, actually, I find reading something new is just as able of bestowing comfort, because the twists of an unfamiliar plot can distract me sufficiently that, for a time, I’m not capable of thinking about whatever is stressing me.

During the worst period of my life, immediately after the death of Roger Zelazny – with whom I was living, and with whom I was beside when he died, (if you’ve missed that long-ago chapter of my biography) –  I read extensively and obsessively.  But I didn’t re-read.  I read new works, including, most memorably, a huge number of Terry Pratchett novels.

One reason I re-read is because the first time through a book I tend to read as quickly as possible, since I’m caught up in finding out what happened.  For the plot to hold my attention, I need to care about the characters.  But rather than slowing me down, my interest in the characters makes me read even faster.  This isn’t to say that I’m not aware of style or other details, but I’m not as analytic.  Re-reading gives me a chance to appreciate how the story was told, to savor the little elements of characterization or setting that made the story grab my soul and hold tight.  This is a good thing for a reader who is also a writer.

Another reason I re-read is that I’ve fallen in love with some aspect or aspects of the story.  Sometimes these are characters.  More rarely it’s the setting.  In the best books, it’s both.  For example, I love the impossible, richly historical, twisted and convoluted setting Patricia McKillip put together for the “Riddle of Stars” series, but I also love many of the (equally impossible, twisted and convoluted) characters.  As a writer, I appreciate how, in McKillip’s work, the bizarre and outré are gloriously rooted in those characters and places that are completely normal.


There are many other books – both series and individual novels – that I have re-read over the years.  Although I buy fewer books than I’d like (Jim and I and the animals need to be able to move through the house), those that I do buy are the ones I know I’ll be re-reading somewhere down the road – and that I don’t want to take the risk of being unavailable when I want to do so.  On my short list for purchase right now are the four volumes of Maggie Stiefvater’s “Raven Cycle.”

So, do you re-read?  If so, what do you re-read?  Why do you re-read?

6 Responses to “Whatcha Re-Read?”

  1. Peter Says:

    Do I re-read? Absolutely. What do I re-read? Well, the short answer is “things I enjoyed the first (or second or tenth or twentieth) time around”; the long answer ties into the next question. “Why do I re-read?” In addition to the reasons you already mentioned – comfort, analysis, spending time with old friends in familiar places – sometimes I re-read because I know I won’t be able to give a book my full attention (during long trips, for example) and I won’t miss an important point because my brain is shutting down after 20 hours in an airplane. Sometimes I re-read to bring myself up to speed when a new book in a series come out (I just picked up A Blade of Black Steel by “Alex Marshall” a week or so ago, and there are enough characters and enough going on that I wanted to re-read A Crown for Cold Silver to refresh my memory before digging in). Sometimes – though not as often these days with the advent of ebooks and easy online shipping – I re-read out of necessity. When you don’t have money to buy books, or the nearest bookstore or library is several hours away the choice comes down to “re-read one of the books I have on hand or don’t read anything”, and that’s no choice at all.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    Do I reread? Yep! What? Whatever I liked enough the first time to bother keeping. Why? Because I liked it – which does mean that sometimes on the second try I go “What??” and dump it. But in general, if I’ve kept a book it’s been read at least twice. And I have a list of books that I _didn’t_ keep that I wish I had, going all the way back to The Three Suns of Amara [10 is way too young for that one!]

    I have to admit that I’ve never understood the read-it-once attitude, but there’s a closely related, IMO, aversion to spoilers and sample chapters. A lot of people get very irate indeed if they are exposed to any content from or information about a book before they read it themselves, and some of the more vociferous also say that they don’t reread books either. No, I don’t know how they can decide if a book is readable without knowing what’s in it. In some cases, of course, they buy it because of the author’s name on the cover. [And then whinge when it’s not just like the last thing that writer published.] Anyway, to get back to my point, I gather that for a lot of people knowing what’s around the next page ruins the fun. Is it possible that this happens more with books because people retain things they’ve read better than things seen or heard? Perhaps because reading requires building an internal image of the story?

    On another tack, I like your characterisation of McKillip’s work. For those who don’t know it, The Bell at Sealey Head is probably the ultimate example of the outre rooted in the completely normal.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Thank you… McKillip has a writerly “voice” that’s unique. And, as a friend noted when we were chatting earlier this week, the “Starbearer” books are unique even among her work, probably because she permitted herself more room to tell the story so it went beyond the favored themes and tropes.

  3. James Marshall Says:

    On rereading –

    There are three types of books I own: those I haven’t read yet; those I keep because I know I will reread them again in the future; and those I’ve bought more than once because I didn’t think I’d want to reread it and then I wanted it and I no longer had a copy, so I had to get another one. (There are also the books I will be selling or donating because I don’t think I’ll reread them again, but I consider those books as potentially in the third category.)

    I think part of the looks people get when they say they’re rereading something are due to two reasons. First, if it’s not a “recognized classic book” according to someone’s list of “worthy” books, they’d consider it a waste of time to read it the first time, let alone read it more than once. Tell someone you read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” every year and they might nod in approval. Tell them you read “A Night in the Lonesome October” every October, especially if they’ve never heard of it, and you’ll get that look. The second reason is that unlike a movie, or most pieces of music, books take a lot of time. Reading is not really a shared experience, so what people hear is that you are ignoring people for many hours to read something you’ve already read.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I hear my books calling.

  4. James Marshall Says:

    Synchronicity: Terri Windling just put this up on her blog: “In praise of re-reading”


  5. Louis Robinson Says:

    Re: Valdemar

    Apologies, I just noticed that there are actually 2 misplaced Valdemar books in the ISFDB listing; the other is Take a Thief.

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