Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Heart those Books: The Joy of Re-re-reading

By: Darby Karchut

In December 2015, I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal by Christopher B. Nelson about the joys of re-reading favorite books. It was entitled Hello, Old Friend, Time to Read You Again. Here’s my favorite selection from it:

"…So too, the most familiar books reveal more about themselves when we attend to them anew. And our growing experience allows us to approach our favorites from different angles. In a sense, rereading the same book produces new insights because the reader is a different person. Indeed, a good book is very much like a mirror: The glass is the same year after year, but the reflection in it changes over time.

Don’t pay any attention if your conscience tries to make you feel guilty for taking the time to reread a favorite book this winter. It is more fruitful and satisfying to read one good book well than a thousand poorly. And the best books cannot be read well without rereading."

What a relief to know my indulgent habit is shared by other, and better yet, it is actually good for me. Kind of like red wine and dark chocolate. I no longer had to carry around the guilt that I should be plowing through new books, and not waste my time reading stuff I’ve already read. I no longer had to bleat a feeble excuse when friends lambasted me about reading anew an old favorite.

“C’mon, Darby. Sheesh, you’ve read that book already. Why would you want to read it again? You know the plot. You know the ending. You know the characters. There is nothing new to be learned.”

And new is always better than old. Right? Amirite?


Other art forms are enjoyed multiple times—paintings and music and dance. We listen to songs more than once. We gaze at paintings and sculpture more than once. Heck, we watch movies more than once.

(What gal saw The Return of the King nine times in a row at the theater and has two thumbs? Yup.)

So, why not books? Why can’t they get do-overs?

I know folks have written before about the value of re-reading, but this article was a great reminder. Sure, most of the books I read are in the one-and-done camp. But, there’s a select few I re-visit time and time again, usually for one of two reasons:

One: It is an author who inspires my own writing. And when I’m stuck on my own writing, I re-read how they solved the problem. I call this Karchut University. It’s how I learned to write. It’s how I’m still learning how to write.  

Two: I call those re-reads my comfort books. Like a literary version of comfort food. Meatloaf novels, you might say. The books that make me feel all kinds of happy or heroic. Without even peeking at my shelves, I can list them right off the bat:

The Lord of the Rings (once a year since I was eleven.) They are why I write mostly fantasy.
The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. These books are why I write mostly middle grade.
The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne.
The Mitford series by Jan Karon.  
The Longmire Mysteries by Craig Johnson.
The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik
The Harry Potter series by What’s-Her-Name. (Just kidding).

In closing, I must quote from Peter S. Beagle’s preface to The Tolkien Reader, one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s more obscure works. In the preface entitled “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” Beagle expresses what many of us feel about re-reading their favorite book:

“I have read the complete work five or six times (not counting browsing, for which this essay is, in part, an excuse), and each time, my pleasure in the texture of it deepens. It will bear the mind’s handling, and it is a book that acquires an individual patina in each mind that takes it up, like a much-caressed pocket stone or piece of wood. At times, always knowing that I didn’t write it, I feel that I did.”

Yes. That. Right there.

Okay, time for confession: I’m curious to hear what books you re-read, and how many times. Don’t be shy. ‘Fess up. An empty comment box is a sad and pitiful thing.