Reading and Re-Reading

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.)

2 Replies to “Reading and Re-Reading”

  1. I read constantly and compulsively. Decades ago I taught myself to read and walk at the same time. (People invariably feel a need to comment on this. Most of those who ask how I do it get a serious answer: a book doesn’t occupy my entire visual field and reading rarely occupies my full attention. I can see around it and I can’t remember running into anything. Those who make comments about how good the book must be [often with suggestions that I smile more] get glares and snarls.) When I was young neither school nor home were safe places. Books almost were so I stayed there as much as possible.

    Today I mostly reread–I have a hard time with libraries because of that whole having to give books back thing and buying even used books gets expensive and space becomes an issue. I still stay mostly within the science fiction/fantasy genres though I like work intended for both adult and youth markets. It’s mostly impossible to turn off the critical voice any more so books with… problems… that I used to like I find myself unable to read now.

    For example: Everything by Gene Wolfe falls into this category. I can’t get past the treatment of gender roles. There’s way too much rape in The Book of the New Sun. (Even in The Book of the Long Sun which is occasionally cited for having Strong Female Characters* this is a problem. Why would mechanical people who don’t reproduce sexually anyway have binary gender? [Unexamined assumptions on the part of the creator. Anthropomorphism how I loathe thee.]) His craft of language is often very pretty. What he does with it is considerably less so.

    Fortunately I don’t have to put up with the (very) problematic writing to stay in my favored genres. Not when there are women like Candas Jane Dorsey out there. Even if she does write like a novel a decade. Snivel.

    I like non-fiction when someone hands it to me and says “here read this it’s really good.” The last one was a book on the 1918 influenza pandemic that was excellent. But it’s not something I seek out. I am a creature of habit.

    * Uh-huh.

  2. These days I read in fits and starts, sometimes reading 4 books in a single day or 25+ books in a week, then going days/weeks before reading another book (hello, internet!). I trend toward re-reading over fresh reading (I’d estimate the ratio is about 70%/30%), in part because of all the books in our library that we’re keeping, most are ones I’ve read before (or are ones I’m not interested in reading, thank you husband with a fondness for old-school male S/F writers like Pohl and Wolfe and Vance).

    Also, the past few years have had fewer (seemingly) new books I’m interested in, whether it’s because favorite authors aren’t churning them out quickly enough or I’m not finding new material that interests me. Every now and then something new will catch my eye, but that happens less and less often…and I’m afraid to admit that it might be partly due to the ossifying of my likes and dislikes. I’ve noticed something similar with music, but I try a bit harder to stretch myself to try new things, perhaps because I care less about music than books?

    The types of books I enjoy have varied widely over the years, with F&SF being at the top of my list (for adults or YA) for as long as I can remember, but with significant alternate periods where I dug deeply into non-fiction (especially history until my recent fascination with political issues), chick lit, manga, Arthur myth, fairy tales (which I’ve always separated from fantasy), etc.

    I tend to be rather critical as I read, but usually not the first time through a book unless the content or writing is so egregious that I’m thrown out of my mental world-building (sorry JK Rowling, I adore Harry Potter and all, but the first several chapters of The Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone are full of clunkers that nearly ruined it for me).

    That said, once I’ve read something a dozen or more times, problematic content is largely invisible as I fly through the book for the highs and lows of my favorite parts. I still cry at Sallah’s death in Dragonsdawn despite having ruined 3 copies in high school alone (this is an anomaly — I really do take care of my books!) as I read it over 300 times. There are problems with Anne’s writing, I know it, and yet I’d struggle to tell you a single one.

    It is much easier with books I’ve read a few times, like comparing the treatment of two Unusual Male Heroes who lose their hands (one heroically fighting a battle he’s not sure how he survived, the other criminally when he’s caught in his sometime-role as a thief) and the Strong Female Characters™ who support them (one an uneducated farmer girl who is brighter than she seems, the other a cruel-ish queen struggling to hang onto her crown after a major military defeat). I’m sure you can already identify some of the avenues for problems. And yet there’s a lot of redeeming qualities in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series and Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series. Reading through third or fourth time highlights areas I overlooked, both good and bad.

    And then there are the books like Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion or A.S. Byatt’s Possession that change fundamentally with each new reading, books so powerful that I have to stop reading every couple of hours just to digest the words and ideas until I have regained my breath.

    For me, reading is an education, a passion, a distraction, and a source of deep comfort.

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