Re-Read to Weed (but also just to re-read)

I’m a chronic re-reader. I can’t not have the desire to revisit books I have previously enjoyed. Particularly when I have a stack of unread books in queue waiting for more of my attention than just an occasional dusting. Part of this liking for re-reading books feeds into my need to own all the books. I am naturally a bibliophile and I like books just for the sake of books, but I’m working on toning that down so I don’t devolve into a book depository. And as I found myself without the time to read all the books I want to, including reruns of old favourites, I came to the hard conclusion that owning all the books was actually counterproductive to my wish to re-read and enjoy the books that I have. You can read the post where I outlined my thought processes, but basically I concluded owning so many books actually detracted my time and energy from the ones that I really wanted to enjoy again and again and thereby earned their space on my shelf. So, I set out to do the old library “weed”: uprooting the books that cluttered up my bookshelf and mental space to let the finely set garden of my favourite books breathe and bloom. And I just thought of an extended metaphor about books you read again and again being perennial plants, but I won’t cultivate that further (ha).

In the process of deciding what should stay and what should go, I lined up a few maybes that I had only read once and wanted to read again to see if they stood up to repeated use. I read through the list of tennish books and was really glad that I did; the ones that were “meh” on the second read would not improve upon a third and therefore could be axed without maudlin thoughts about maybe someday reading it again, the ones that were as enjoyable as I remembered could then be justified in their placement on my shelf. It was a great way of paring down my overgrown collection. (I can’t help it, the metaphors are running rampant as I write.)

Now, a year and half later, I’ve set out another course of re-reads from my bookshelf. In the process of moving this past New Year’s Eve, I hauled 19 boxes of books from one place to another (with the help of a longsuffering friend whom I can’t thank enough!). It didn’t seem like too much, considering that I had semi-recently done a significant downsize, but it still was a lot. Two bookshelves full, to be exact. And over the course of the subsequent university term, I came back to much the same conclusion I had before: I want to read some of these books, I don’t have time to read all of these books, therefore not all of these books need to be on my shelves. I also happened to watch a YouTube video by David Stewart on only keeping books you’ve read twice, which made me think more seriously about doing a series of re-reads. I made a list of books I’ve read two or more times and know I will read again, and then a list of ones I’ve only read once, so that I could have a starting point. Also, my to-read pile is finally dwindling to a shortish pile of books, many of which I can’t read yet anyway (they’re book 3 in a series and I haven’t read book 2, for example), which makes me feel less guilty about cracking open a pre-loved volume.

So, I’m re-reading a bunch of books again and loving it. I know some people (like my brother) have a hard time re-reading books, or even rewatching movies, sometimes, because they know what will happen and don’t feel like it’s as good when the suspense or uncertainty of outcome is gone. And I understand, because even when you don’t remember exactly how everything happened off the top of your head, those things come filtering back as you re-read and you start getting your suspension of disbelief interrupted by “Oh, yeah, I remember this” moments. I get it. Though I like re-reading books, the same thing happens to me, and I can honestly say there are times when I wish I could read a book for the first time again. In fact, just recently my aforementioned brother finished The Wheel of Time series and was sad to leave the characters and story behind. Which is legit—you can never have quite the same experience of discovery with a book after you’ve read it once.

But you can revisit that feeling. Books, particularly physical books (particularly the same copy of a book), have the capability of triggering memory. Which may be annoying at times, as mentioned above, if it reminds you of the conclusion to a mystery, for example, thereby spoiling the element of surprise later on. However, books also hold the memory of being read. There are books that, when I have re-read them and come to a particular part, I can pinpoint exactly where I was when I read it. Often with that spatial recreation comes the remembrance of how I felt while reading it. It may not be quite the same as reading it for the first time, but it is possible to relive the first-time experience with books that made a strong enough impression.

And which books make a strong impression? If the book has strong characters, emotional substance, and development, and all or at least enough of those things resonate with you, it can still be rewarding to read it multiple times. Because even if the plot or intrigue is no longer a surprise, the emotional connection with the characters or the themes might just have enough depth that they can still offer more to a returning reader. Any genre of book could have these characteristics, though plot driven stories like mysteries, spy, or political thrillers don’t always stand up to a second reading because their strength is in the resolution rather than the journey. There are books that have both, though, strong plot as well as developed characters, but it is less common, and your run-of-the-mill mystery is going to be disappointing on second read because the question that kept you reading the first time has already been answered.

Case in point: I am re-reading the Richard Hannay books by John Buchan. I loved these when I first read them, beginning with The 39 Steps. Apparently Buchan was bored on vacation, wanted a snappy spy thriller to read but didn’t have any readily available, so he wrote his own. I liked tone of the first person narration, the adventures and clever ingenuity of the protagonist, as well as the solution to the mystery. When I finished re-reading The 39 Steps, I had to face the fact that it didn’t really stand up to multiple readings. I can state, without meaning it disparagingly or admiringly, that the book reads like someone dashed it off on their vacation. The mystery was quite straightforward once it was revealed and the only interest in following the protagonist as he got there was his narration, which, while interesting and light in tone, was not always brilliant enough to really carry the story through some draggy, episodic parts in the middle of the book as he makes his way alone through the Scottish countryside dodging pursuit. I would totally recommend it to anyone to read once, because it is a great (and short) little romp, but it isn’t going to be something I re-read a whole bunch. But then I went on to re-read the second book in the series, Greenmantle, and it was completely the opposite. Buchan picks up speed and develops this series to make a more complex story with even higher stakes, bringing in new elements to add to the dynamic; the protagonist isn’t alone for the majority of the book, which is always a good start when creating interest and character development, and the scope of the story takes place across Europe and into the Middle East, with all the politics that go with that during the First World War. And though there is a mystery (of sorts) at the heart of this plot as well, the revelation and how it turns out didn’t lose its impact even when it was known ahead of time for me. Greenmantle, therefore, will stay on my shelf and I might read it many more times.

So, there are pros and cons to re-reading books, and one of the cons is that what may have been set up in your mind/memory as a favourite doesn’t actually stand up on a subsequent reading. But that’s okay. That means that re-reading books is doing something, and it’s doing something good, which is to hone my collection into one full to the brim with books I love to love again.       

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