How do you read?
That is to say, most people have certain systems, as it were, and certain things they believe about reading and books. Some people like to buy all their books. Others hit the library or borrow from friends. Some people only read books once. Others like to read them again and again. Some people can read multiple books at once, while others prefer to focus on just one.
I read, as people have observed, a lot, although it doesn’t feel like a lot to me, honestly. But when I saw people touting up year-end tallies of, say, 50 books, I realized that I read a lot more than most people. I usually read upwards of 400 books a year[a. Note: I’m not trying to be smug about my reading habits, here. I read quickly, and I have structured my life in a way which allows me a lot of spare time. Being able to read 400 books or more a year is a facet of my privilege, and I’m including that number for reference, but it’s not intended to shame or mock people who read less.], although I don’t always keep track very well because I’m more interested in the quality of what I read than the quantity. This kind of gives me a lot of time to think about how I read and what I like to read.
For me, re-reading is really part of the enjoyment of reading in the first place. If I read a book only once, it usually means that I did not find it very interesting or enlightening. Reading once is what I reserve for popcorn books, the books I read to clear my head after reading something deep and complex. It’s almost an insult, honestly; it means that I thought the book was so devoid in value that a second pass probably would not be very productive.
I like re-reading, on a deep and intense level. For one thing, it allows me to uncover new layers and meanings. I already know what’s going to happen, so I can focus on the details of how it happens and how it unfolds. I can read a book twenty times and come up with a new insight each time, understand the story more deeply and learn something entirely fresh. I can take away a completely different perspective on the book, honestly. This happens every time I re-read The Sparrow, which may actually be my favourite book of all time.
And the other thing is that I change, as a reader and a person. This means that I never read a book in the same way. After reading a book on the history of, say, tuna, a fiction piece in which tuna plays a role reads very differently to me. But it’s about more than that; my changing life experiences change me as a reader. They change my interests and tastes, of course, but they also change the way in which I approach texts, and my subsequent reading of them.
I’ve recently been re-reading Robertson Davies, an author whom I think is not terribly popular right now, although he really ought to be, because he is excellent. And I’m getting so much more out of him. There are layers and nuances which I just plain did not see before, even though I last re-read him about two years ago. I see these things because I am a different person, and they give me new insight into Davies, and into the books I read. For example, in What’s Bred in the Bone, disability is actually a very central part of the plot, and thanks to my more recent heavy engagement with disability issues, I’m seeing the book and the characters in a different light.
It makes me sad to talk to people who don’t re-read, and who are in fact a bit disdainful about re-reading. They’re missing out on so many things! The Scarlet Letter, for example, I loathed with a passion in high school and railed against whenever it came up. In college, I came to it again and loved it. Because I had changed, and the text had more to offer me. Likewise, I wasn’t very into Jane Austen until relatively recently.
I can’t really decide if I don’t like a book until I have read it a couple of times. There are books that I just stop reading because I can’t handle them at that particular moment, and I might say that they are “bad,” but it’s actually a little bit more complicated than that. That’s just the shorthand I use for “I started to read it and found that I wasn’t really ready for it.” I’m reluctant to condemn a book out of hand as “bad” because, well, it appeals to someone. Who am I to make blanket statements about something so subjective? Thus, when I say a book is “bad” I mean it in a subjective sense, bad for me, not an objective one, bad for everyone. (The same holds true of other media critiques, incidentally, and I would note that problematic does not equal bad.)
I used to be quite snobbish about literary tastes, looking down my nose at people who read romances and mysteries. Fortunately I’ve gotten over that, and learned to recognize that, you know, my experiences don’t invalidate those of others. The fact that I don’t particularly enjoy reading romances doesn’t make them bad, it just makes them not for me. And I actually enjoy reading analysis and discussion of romances, because there’s a lot of interesting discussion to be had once you can get over your snobbery.
There’s much to be found in any book, if you want to take the time to engage with it, although you certainly aren’t obliged to engage with everything. And there’s not much to be had in shaming and judging people for what they read, how they read it, how much they read; if you want to actually have discussions about reading, you’ve got to start from a place of neutrality.
So, how do you read? What do you read? Do you engage with books on different levels, depending on the book and how you feel? (I freely admit that I do not read everything in Critic Mode; some books I read just to read, because my brainmeats like words and feel comfortable in a nest of words.)