Ah, the magic of revisiting a book I read long ago …
This past weekend I finished reading Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep for the third or fourth time since the 1990s. Each time, I had forgotten just enough by each reread that I enjoy it as much as the first time. In fact, I think this past reading, I enjoyed it more than ever.
Rereading a book is not something I do often. My coworkers and I were talking about this recently. My supervisor loves to read fantasy. “I don’t want to reread a book,” she said. “There are so many more out there I want to explore.”
That’s how I feel about ninety-five percent of the time when I ponder what book to read next. I have about five thousand print novels on my shelves at home, about two thousand in my Audible library, about sixty-thousand ebooks on my Kindle. These numbers are all exaggerations, but they might as well be the real amounts. I’ll never get to them all. I remember a guy I worked for years ago who said, “The saddest day in my life was when I realized I would never be able to read all the books I want to.” I feel the same way. And the number of books I have on my to-read list, print, audio, digital or otherwise, might as well be eight million.
So, even though most of the time I’ll chose a book to read I’ve not touched before, there are certain books I come back to every five to ten years: Life of Pi by Yann Martel; Hyperion by Dan Simmons; Dune by Frank Herbert; Doomsday Book by Connie Willis; and A Fire Upon the Deep among others.
By the way, here’s my Goodreads list of my favorite books. I’ve read most of these more than once.
Why do I do it? Why to I waste my precious mortality rereading a book when there are endless others to explore? I came up with five reasons.
- I remember the story and characters better. This past reading of A Fire Upon the Deep reintroduced me to the fantastic alien characters I consider some of the most imaginative in science fiction literature: Pilgrim, one of the aliens consisting of a pack of dogs–all considered one being; Pham Newen, a cocky, godlike being constructed from several human pirates from long ago; Blueshell and Greenstalk, an alien couple who are two large plants with short term memory issues; the butterfly creatures who are actually a vicious mafia-type gang.
- I see things I didn’t see before. The first time I read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I didn’t catch the reference to the city I grew up in. The next time I read it, I had found out about the reference to the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. The hotel inspired much of the novel; I’ve walked around in it and it’s almost like going back in time to the 1920s. Every time I read Gatsby, I catch other references to my hometown.
- I see how I’ve changed. When I first read Dune, I was the same age as Paul Atreides. I looked to him as the character I identified with. Over the years, I identified more closely with other characters; Jessica Atreides, and as I get older, Gurney Halleck. Sigh. This is actually my favorite reason for rereading a book.
- I see how the world has changed. Speaking for myself, I believe I’ve become more empathetic and wise since the first time I read The Grapes of Wrath. I still have a long way to go in my my wisdom, but I felt the burdens of the Joads more now than when i was younger now that I know how easy it is to lose everything. I also saw parallels in the world today from the book and I realize how, in some ways, not much has changed in the United States since the 1920s
- I underline passages. The first time I read Life of Pi, I read it straight through without pause. After I finished, I thought, “Man, so many good quotes in this book. I wish I had highlighted them.” So a few years later, I reread Life of Pi, and this time highlighted all the things Pi said that are quotable. I was also glad I just read it straight through the first time, just to enjoy it, and then, when rereading it, pick out the neat prose I want to savor.
So about once or twice a year, I’ll reread a book I read a long time ago. If you can’t bring yourself to “waste time” reading a book you’ve already read, I challenge you to take a step back, pick out a book you remember enjoying and revisit that world. See how you’ve changed.