So, the last three novels that I read are, in order: Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng; and the only reason that Everything I Never Told You hasn’t been read twice (yet) is because I had to send back the library copy I read the first time.
This immediate repetition serves to highlight, first and foremost, just how utterly and amazingly fantastic Celeste Ng’s books are, oh my god, why aren’t you reading them literally right this second? But also, it got me thinking about the nature of re-reading books, and the many benefits that I’ve gotten from the practice over the years.
Let me start by saying that not everyone does this. Which, if you’re anything like me, I know, is a “wait, WHAT?” moment, because seriously—wait, WHAT? It’s true, I’m afraid, it’s true. I have, in point of fact, seen more than one person espouse about how they make it a policy to never re-read a book at all. Ever.
This choice they make seems to come down to basic math. X number of years left of your life, Y number of books currently in your TBR, with Z new releases coming out each month = you will never have time to read everything you want to read. The idea, then, is that by re-reading a book you’ve already read, you’re not spending that time reading a new book, and this is, theoretically, one less total book that you’ll be able to read in your lifetime.
Which, ignoring the fact that these same people who make this argument can usually quote entire episodes of their favorite TV show from memory because they’ve binge-watched the whole series eighteen times in a row on Netflix and don’t you dare try to tell me that it takes longer to read a book than to cram in twelve seasons of whatever… I don’t know, that seems like a pretty unsatisfying way to live your life. I mean, I guess, technically the math holds up? Assuming that I’m going to decide to read during this same time block if all I have to read are new books versus a really good old book, and that’s no guarantee that I’ll make that choice, but FINE, let’s play your game. Technically, you’re right. Of course you’re right. But once you start down that road, where does it end? If I read a book, I am also not taking piano lessons, working on my next novel, cooking a healthy dinner, or spending time talking to a loved one. And if I do any of those activities, I am not reading a new book. For me, that leads to nothing but a circular mess of anxiety and indecision, and who is to determine the relative value of each activity anyway; and what if you read a new book, congrats, but it sucks, THEN WHAT?
Putting all of that aside, there are also just so many reasons why re-reading books is a great idea, the first and arguably most important being that it’s fun. (And where, exactly, does fun factor into this grand equation of reading New versus Old, hmm?) Maybe you don’t enjoy it, and that’s fine–you do you–but there is a lot of pleasure to be gained from reading a story that you already know. The first time that you read a book, the main question you’re asking of the novel is what’s going to happen next?, whereas the second time you read a book, it’s about the joy of watching what you already know is happening, unfold. You can luxuriate in the fictional world that you’re inhabiting without needing to always rushrushrush to the next scene.
This comes down to the fact that—and I cannot stress this enough—your experience of reading a book the second time through is going to be different than your experience of reading it the first time. Always. It has to be, because when you read a book that you’ve already read, you have a deeper understanding of the characters and situation than you did when it was all still new. Revelations that didn’t happen until halfway through the plot will shape how you relate to the choices the characters make in chapter one. Not even necessarily huge, sucker-punch moments that change the way you look at everything that’s come before (insert Jenn side-eyeing Everything I Never Told You), just the little everyday understanding that comes from spending time with a person, aka a character, and how you learn to know them better with each passing day.
I feel like this part is especially important for writers, and for this reason I kind of worry about writers who don’t re-read books. How can you possibly learn how to weave in those moments that readers will look back on and realize they meant something completely different than they thought, if you don’t go back and see how other writers play this game out? I know that in my own work, I plant little throwaway lines that don’t necessarily seem to mean anything the first time you read them—or mean something fairly unimportant—but that, maybe even four or five books later, once you get to the relevant part, if you go back and re-read the first novel, you’ll realize that was actually a hint about what was to come. Are a lot of readers going to miss this? Sure. And that’s fine, and the story holds up if you don’t take the time to spot these “easter egg” foreshadows, but they’re presents to the readers that do put in the effort.
Additionally, I mean, your experience reading a book is going to change every time you read it, in fact, simply because you change. Read a book once at 20, once at 25, once at 30, you’re going to pick up on different things, different themes will resonate with you more than others; characters that once seemed awesome will now seem like assholes, or maybe the stodgy old fart now actually makes perfect sense to you. And this perspective can shift your entire understanding of the book—or not! It depends on you, it depends on the book. But you’ll never know unless you revisit it.
I don’t know, it’s just… books are huge, glorious, detailed works of art, filled to the bursting point with things that you can discover and probe and unpack, and no matter how hard you read it through the first time, you will never find every piece of it in one go. For writers, you will never understand the art and craft of how it was done, all in one go, and for readers, there is still just so much to learn about and enjoy and revel in. Books are made to be appreciated, not just checked off a list. And I think that flat-out refusing to give them that due, is a disservice not just to the book, but to yourself.
Plus, you know… it’s really just so much fun. It is seriously the ability to keep your cake, and have it too.