On Rereading Books

Following a tangent from the previous entry …

The vast majority of the books I’ve read, I’ve only read once. And I have forgotten far, far more about those books than what I remember. After a few years, I can still recall whether I liked it, a general outline maybe, and some favorite characters or scenes, but not enough to engage in any conversation or analysis of particular depth. A few years after that, there’s little left but wisps.

Of course, you can get by on wisps of book-memory at cocktail parties. Heck, wisps have served me well enough both in the classroom and in front of it. But that’s just getting by—in order to really feel like I know a book, I have to have read it more than once, and even then need to revisit it every several years to keep it fresh. I know plenty of people whose retention of book-knowledge is much greater—who can read something once and still call on it, in detail, much later. They’re the lucky ones.

What about the rest of us? If you can hardly remember a thing about a book you read a few years back, what does it matter that you’ve read it at all? It’s not all lost, of course. Even if you can’t summon specific memories, whatever book you read stays with you at an unconscious level. And the experience of reading a book may have been rewarding—emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise—at the time, which feeds somehow into who you are just like any other life experience that you remember dimly or have forgotten. But a book that stays with you is clearly something much more.

What if you were given this choice: Pick thirty books to read once, and that’s all you get for the rest of your life, or, pick ten books, but you get to read them three times apiece? I’d pick the second option. It wouldn’t even take much thought.

I think about this a lot more now that my reading time is limited and I’m getting old and crotchety. Any time I’m trying to decide what to read next, I consciously consider whether to read something new or revisit something old that I know I want to keep fresh. And it occurs to me that as the years roll on, the number of great books that I’ll want to keep in mental circulation by periodically rereading them will grow, and so the room for new books will shrink. (One can see how this process leads to the ease with which older generations perennially poo-poo the current literature as inferior to what they read when they were younger. They can’t afford the time to read it; easier to dispense with it.)

The situation is accentuated by rich books like The Knight and The Wizard that demand a second reading just to achieve a full appreciation of the work in the first place. That’s not a bad thing, though—such books are often the ones that are most worth keeping in your mental circulation in the first place.

Another complicating factor is that if you wait too long for a second reading, it really counts more as another first reading. Sooner is better for a reread. Maybe the thing to do is reread something right after you’ve read it, or at least within six months or so. That’s a great notion in theory, but if your book backlog is like mine, and if, like me, you know of things on the horizon that you’ll want to read as soon as they come out, it’s pretty hard to pull off.

All this ramblings comes as a result of my urge to reread The Wizard Knight right away. And I think I will—not because other stuff isn’t calling to me, but strictly as an experiment in bookreading. Can right away be too soon? I’ll find out.