Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Compulsive Re-Reading, or why I never get around to blogging

Book Aunt had a post around Christmas time asking if people had books they liked to reread over holidays, and that post inspired this one.  I don't limit re-reading to holidays curled up by the fire. I re-read books all the time.

When I started to think about the books I choose to read over and over again, I thought I'd try to analyze what made me want to experience them multiple times. The word "experience" is the key: what sort of experiences do books offer that can be enjoyed even when you already know what happens? Here are a few of my thoughts, with examples from the books that I love to re-read (I've linked to descriptions of the books, in case my vague references don't make them immediately obvious!)

Coniston Water, Lake District
(could be Narnia, couldn't it!)
The experience of place: otherwise known as the Narnia effect. I must have read the Chronicles of Narnia at least once a year for most of my childhood and adolescence. I so badly wanted to go to Narnia, and reading the books was the only way to get there. (Okay, I still want to go! When I read them now, it amazes me how few words Lewis needs to create such a compelling world.) There are a number of fantasy worlds that I enjoy spending time in: Lyra's world; Earthsea; Ancelstierre; Damar, or any of Robin McKinley's other worlds; Discworld; Hogwarts. But I also love to go to Arthur Ransome's Lake District (I finally did a few years ago; it was just as he had described it), or to the nostalgic England of E. Nesbit's children, or to The Secret Garden. I do love places with cool magical systems and creatures, but even if a place is perfectly realistic, if the author loves it then I want to keep coming back to it.

Please tell me you know this
is Anne of Green Gables
The experience of people: there are some characters I wish were my real friends, and some that I'm glad aren't real but they're a lot of fun to hang around with! Elisabeth Bennett, Anne of Green Gables, Jane Eyre, Sara Crewe, Vicky Austen, Meg and Charles Wallace, Tiffany Aching, Sophie and Wizard Howl, Ender Wiggins, Vidanrik Renselaeus, Marquis of Shevraeth (I haven't re-read him yet since I just discovered him, but I will!), Miles Vorkosigan, Thursday Next . . . I've got another bookshelf upstairs I could check, but this is a pretty good list! These characters are not like me: they are clever and brave and spunky, and these qualities get them into as much trouble as they get them out of. I wish I could be them, but I'd settle for being their sidekick!

The experience of drama: once you know how it ends you don't get to feel the suspense again (unless you have as bad a memory as I do, in which case sometimes you can!), but those dramatic moments are worth reliving. Sometimes I skip through books just to get to the good parts.
Elizabeth rejecting Darcy's proposal;
Jane choosing to leave Rochester;
Eugenides noticing Attolia's earrings;
Edward kissing Bella for the first time (not the 247th time; it does get old!);
Lyra finding Roger clutching the dead fish because his daemon is gone;
Katsa throwing that knife at the end;
If you don't mind reliving the best
use of a swear word in literature,
this is quite funny
Harry returning to Corlath after disobeying a direct order and riding off to save the kingdom;
Molly Weasley facing Bellatrix.
Scenes that twist your heart, scenes that make you jump up and yell "Yes!" Little guys facing down big guys; difficult truths being spoken; noble sacrifices being made. Like the taste of homemade bread or the smell of roses, the emotional intensity of these moments is necessary to my well-being. I love drama more than I love sleep, which is saying a lot!

The experience of voice: I will read anything written by my favourite authors, because I love listening to them talk. They could be talking about walking their dog and picking up the dry-cleaning; it's not the content, it's the way the words are strung together. Part of it is facility with language: I opened up I Shall Wear Midnight at random and here's a sentence:
It was a nervous statement with a wiry little question clinging to the end of it, waiting to burst into tears.
Here's a random Laini Taylor sentence:
They laughed alike and moved alike, and they thought the same thoughts as completely as if a butterfly traveled back and forth between their minds, bearing ideas on its legs like pollen.
Sentences like these make me happy. With some authors it's not so much individual sentences as the way sentences and paragraphs all build on each other, layer upon layer of meaning: Connie Willis is brilliant at this; so is Patricia McKillip. Nothing extraneous, everything necessary. Craft, is what it is, using words as tools.

But voice is more than just excellent writing; it's also the mind behind the writing. I can enjoy a book with an exciting plot and interesting characters and competent prose, but if there isn't some fundamental idea behind it all that resonates with me, I won't read it again. Authors I re-read have a strong world view, a sense of right and wrong, an appreciation of what is beautiful and just. They may be lyrical, they may be funny, but they all have a certain fierceness: they have written the truth and they know it.  (I don't mean that the author is opinionated or, heaven forbid, preachy; in fact often the authors don't know that they've written truth, or what truth they've written. But their voice knows.) I don't have to agree with their world view, but they have to believe in it, and then it comes through in their voice and then I have confidence in their story and want to be carried along in it.

I also only re-read books with happy endings, so I guarantee that in all the books linked to in this post the girl will get the guy, the evil whatsits will be defeated, the loner/outcast with no talent will have found his/her place in the world and  humanity will have proved itself redeemable, if only just. (Is that why most of my re-reading happens to be fantasy? No! I firmly believe happy endings happen in real life too! I do.)


  1. I don't know why I keep holding off on the Laini Taylor... the darkness of the covers keeps turning me off, maybe...

    I'm inclined just to go back and reread particular scenes, too. But often I'll start doing that and just get sucked in to the rest of the book anyway...

    1. This was actually a dangerous post to write, because I did keep getting sucked into the books as I looked for quotes or scenes!

      You have to try Laini Taylor! She's not dark: she has pink hair!

      Seriously, though, she does have darkness, but it's delicious, like chocolate, not icky and creepy like horror (I don't do horror). Start with Fairies of Dreamdark, they're fun. (Lips Touch Three Times is a short way to get introduced to her, but definitely the darkest. But chocolate!)

  2. I recently reread "The Outsiders" and "That was then, This is Now" by SE Hinton, favorites from my childhood. When I was a preteen, I reread books a lot, mostly because we had only so many.
    I'd love to revisit other favorites from my childhood like A Wrinkle in Time

    1. Sometimes I think I reread the books I loved as a kid as a way of reliving--not my childhood, but the joy I got from the books I read then. Someone quoted in a blog comment somewhere (wish I could find it again!): "You never love a book the way you loved it when you were ten" and I think it's very true.