by Gar Anthony Haywood

As I write this, my daughter Maya and son Jackson, eleven and nine, respectively, are sitting in the den, listening to an audio book: HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN.  They are enthralled and amused, falling silent when things get scary and laughing hysterically when something funny happens.  To listen to them, you’d think they were having the time of their lives.

And I swear to God, this has to be the 463rd time they’ve listened to this book.

They’ve listened to all the other Harry Potter audio books just as often, finding each no less consistently entertaining.  And they re-read the actual Potter books just as zealously.  Clearly, J.K. Rowling’s writing (and Jim Dale’s reading) loses nothing in the way of impact the second, third, or 265th time around.

This strikes me as incredible, because I am a devout one-time-only reader.  I never re-read anything.  God knows I’ve read enough books deserving of a second or third read — a lack of worthy titles isn’t the problem.  So what is?

Three things:

  1. Time.  Every minute you spend re-reading a book you’ve already had the pleasure of knowing is a minute you can’t devote to something new and possibly just as remarkable.   That motto booksellers like to put on T-shirts — SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME — rings all too true for me.  I live in constant fear of missing out on a genuinely fantastic, undiscovered read somewhere, and I don’t want to blow it by giving CHILDHOOD’S END a second look, especially if, ultimately, that second look only serves to prove that one should have been enough.

    Which leads me to my next reason for avoiding second reads. . .

  2. Dashed expectations.  Almost thirty years ago, I read Elmore Leonard’s novel STICK and loved it.  It changed my life.  My memory of it is that of a masterpiece, a how-to in crime writing.  But is it really?  If I re-read the book today and found it to be something short of all that, I’d be heartbroken.    Disillusioned.

    As I’ve aged and matured, I’ve become a more discerning reader.  Harder to please and dazzle.  Turns of phrase that I used to find mesmerizing irk me now as false and dissonant.  My standards for genius have been raised considerably.

    Granted, in this particular example, because it’s Elmore Leonard we’re talking about, it’s possible I’d find STICK to be even better than I originally thought.  It’s for sure I’d still enjoy it.  But why take the risk?  Why mess with perfection, even if it’s a perfection based solely on the vagaries of memory?  Wouldn’t my time be better spent seeking out the next Elmore Leonard, wherever he or she may be, instead?

  3. Speed.  Sadly, regardless of whether I’m doing it for business or for pleasure, I read the same way I write: at a snail’s pace.  Even when a book grabs me, I take it in slooooowly.  So the amount of time I invest in a book usually runs somewhere between a week to thirty days.  That’s just the way I roll.  If I could read something and enjoy it in two or three days, tops, maybe I could afford to do more re-reading.  But I can’t.  So I don’t.

Needless to say, not every reader has the same aversion to re-reading that I do.  Some think life is too short NOT to re-read, depending on the book or books in question.  Why deny yourself the pleasure of a great read, these people ask, just because it’s not entirely new to you?  Surely, some novels are not only up to the challenge of re-examination, they can in fact only be fully appreciated that way.  Just as some films require multiple viewings to be completely understood, some works of fiction demand multiple reads before all their surprises and nuances can be perceived and savored.

Hmmm.   That’s a pretty convincing argument, even if I had to make it myself.  Convincing enough that I find myself wondering if it isn’t time to reconsider my hard-and-fast position on this question.  Maybe I’d see things in a second reading of STICK that I missed the first time; things that would suggest, not that the novel is less than I’ve always thought it was, but more.

Well, maybe.

Because I remain dubious — okay, I’m a chickenshit — I’m going to enter into this re-reading business very carefully.  Tentatively.  So I’ll be limiting my re-reads to three titles to start.  These are the books I’ve always been tempted to re-experience, having had them blow me away the first time, that I most suspect will not disappoint under the merciless glare of a highly anticipated second read.  In no particular order, they are:

  • IN COLD BLOOD – Truman Capote

    I was only fourteen when I originally read this, so my impression of it as a work of literary genius could be colored by the naïveté of youth.  But I doubt it.  What I know for sure is that this was the first book I could not put down once I started it, and when it was over, I knew I had just read something that was on a completely different level from all I had read before.

  • DARKER THAN AMBER – John D. MacDonald

    This was my first Travis McGee novel, and I only sought it out because it served as the basis for a movie of the same name, starring Rod Taylor, that I enjoyed quite a bit back in the late sixties.  Little could I have guessed how much better than the film the book would turn out to be, and that I would go on to devour every other McGee title by MacDonald I could get my hands on.

    I’ve never heard this particular title described as one of the best in the series, so it may ultimately disappoint, but I’m curious to see how much of MacDonald’s brilliance I actually got a glimpse of by reading this McGee first.

  • THE HORSE LATITUDES – Robert Ferrigno

    I remember this as a terrific read overall, an Elmore Leonard-esque tour de force with an LSD twist, and I have always believed its first two paragraphs make for the greatest opening to a thriller I have ever read.  Check this out:

    It didn’t take much to set him off these days — laughter from the apartment below, a flash of blond hair out of the corner of his eye.  Or, late at night, the sound of two car doors slamming in quick succession.  Especially that.  He imagined them walking to his place or her place, both of them eager but trying not to let it show, holding hands, tentatively at first, then the  man slipping his arm around her waist while she smiled and laid her head on his shoulder.

    There were nights when Danny missed Lauren so bad that he wanted to take a fat man and throw him through a plate-glass window.  Just for the sound of it.  Instead, he went swimming in the bay.

I don’t know when I’ll get around to these re-reads, exactly, but I plan to do a follow-up blog post on my reactions as soon as I do.  So stay tuned.  In the meantime:

Questions for the class: Do you re-read, and if so, how often?  Do some books disappoint on re-examination, or do they always live up to your time-held reverence for them?  If you don’t re-read, what are your reasons for abstaining?  And if you could only re-read three books out of all those you’ve read in your lifetime, what would they be?

One Final Word: Look, I know I’ve been beating the subject of bland and unimaginative titles to death lately, and you’ve got to be sick and tired of hearing me gripe about it, so rather than write any more long Dumb Ass Title diatribes, I’ve decided to vent my spleen with the occasional addendum to posts on other subjects, an addendum I’ll call:


Today’s winner: The upcoming Eddie Murphy/Ben Stiller Oceans 11/12/13 knock-off, Tower Heist.

30 thoughts on “ONCE IS (NOT?) ENOUGH

  1. David DeLee

    I am so in your corner on this one, and for the same reasons. I am a notorious slow reader and the time I would spend re-reading takes me away from experiencing something new. Secondly, I read for the anticipation of what's going to happen next, to learn how the story unfold, what's the next unexpected twist or turn. That on a second read just isn't there.
    I have re-read sections of books I've read, to study them. To examine how favorite authors have manipulated me into feeling the way I felt, or how they managed to mislead me with a red herring.
    That being said, I do have on my shelf, with the intention to re-read, a couple of old Ross MacDonald books I had when I was kid and recently found while cleaning out my parents house for a recent move. It's been thirty-five years since I read 'em, so there's a chance I won't remember how they turn out.
    Happy reading,
    David DeLee
    Fatal Destiny – a Grace deHaviland novel

  2. Adrienne

    It's very brave to re-examine your attitude toward re-reading. I am a fast reader and I LOVE to take a second pass, but only with books I really loved. I read A Game of Thrones to refresh my memory before the show came out, and right now I'm re-reading Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon. Hers are the type that only get better as you go back and pick up hints and clues to actions and characters later in the series. I can't wait to read your follow-up posts to see how your re-reading goes.

  3. Phillip Thomas Duck

    Funny you should write this post today. I just started re-reading (for the umpteenth time) Daniel Woodrell's GIVE US A KISS. Something about the book continues to enthrall me even after too many reads to count. I'm the same way with James Lee Burke and Walter Mosley and Eric Jerome Dickey and…okay, I admit it, I'm a flaming re-reader. But I love new books and discovering new authors, as well. What it comes down to is: I HAVE to always have something close to my fingertips to read and it's during those moments when I can't find anything new that I return to my tried-and-true bookshelf.

  4. PK the Bookeemonster

    My attitude until recently about not only re-reading books but also even keeping them was the "too many books, too little time" school of thought. That is, I didn't even really keep books I'd read once. I've changed that and I am starting to build up collections of authors that I intend to perhaps re-read down the road.
    That being said, the only books at this point I have actually re-read are beloved ones such as LITTLE WOMEN, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, PERSUASION and Tey's DAUGHTER OF TIME.
    In my blog last year, I did a Sunday Seconds series of what I would like to re-read, given the time:

    DERYNI SERIES by Katherine Kurtz
    A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN by Virginia Woolf
    AND THEN THERE WERE NONE and CURTAIN by Agatha Christie
    THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (trilogy) by Steig Larsson
    THE JESTER GUILD series by Alan Gordon
    NAKED IN DEATH (series from beginning) by JD ROBB
    MILES VORKOSIGAN SERIES by Lois McMaster Bujold
    DISSOLUTION by CJ Sansom
    DUNE (series) by Frank Herbert
    PASSAGE by Connie Willis
    THE STAND by Stephen King
    FREEDOM AND NECESSITY by Steven Brust & Emma Bull
    FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov
    CUT TO THE QUICK by Kate Ross
    THE HUNGER GAMES (trilogy) by Suzanne Collins

  5. Allison Davis

    My to be read pile is so high, I swear if we have an earthquake, that'll be what kills me, never mind what's on my Kindle. BUT I re-read not just to savor or revisit good writing, I do it for escape. I escape back into the books. Rex Stout was probably the first author where I devoured each and every book and I have most of the old paperbacks (also all of McDonald's as well). A particularly bad day at the office can push me back into a book I've read before for the sheer comfort of it. Really guilty pleasure? Old Nancy Drew books. Pure stress relief, not about reading, it's about escape.

    My dad read to us a lot as kids and recited poetry at the dinner table so reads likje O'Henry's short story, Ransom of Red Chief or anything by Robert Service, while not books, evoke those better days of the delight of reading and being read to. Then, re-reading classics, Maughm, Hardy, I get new insights (better than when I force fed them in high school or too young to get it….). So while I, too, will never get through my to be read pile in my lifetime, I still allow myself that venture back into the past, to tread over old ground and see it with new eyes, or wallow in its comfort.

  6. Gayle

    I used to re-read books all the time due to economics. I am an extremely fast reader and in the summer when not teaching I can go through a book in a day and a half. So I used to read one new book and then re-read one or two before reading another new one. Part of this is because I don't like to use the library. I like what I call virgin books, untouched by other hands. Now I no longer need to re- read in-between reading new books so I find that rarely do anymore. While I read mostly crime fiction books if I could only pick 3 books to re-read, it would be these: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, and Christy by Catherine Marshall.

  7. Louise Ure

    I can't find a good reason for not rereading favorite books. After all, don't we listen to our favorite music multiple times? Having said that, I find that my loss of anticipation means that I don't enjoy the books as much the second time around.

  8. Alaina

    I reread books all the time. It probably helps that I've always been a fantastically fast reader; I read the last Harry Potter overnight. Like, get-back-from-work-at-10-finished-by-6-in-the-morning for those 700+ pages. Ironically, I don't have the urge to reread those much; two (or three, I forget) times was enough when I was younger.

    My reasons for rereading are many and varied. I have one book with me at college now that I can't even remember when I first read it. I know it's on par with the books I was reading in second and third grade. It's my security blanket; when I need those familiar words, it's there.

    I think of rereading some books akin to rewatching a favorite old movie or TV show (especially since, for me, it usually takes about the same amount of time!). But I very, very rarely don't read a book twice, and this is at least partly because I am a fast reader.

    On the second read, I'm just as fast, but I'm more likely to set the book down and spend a few minutes thinking. I like spotting the foreshadowing; THIS is a hint at the ending, THAT's where you first notice there's a crush; in hindsight, that's FUNNY. I've been rereading for just that reason since third or fourth grade.

    Before that, the habit was… a bit different. I was in a special reading group in first grade because I was slow: at letters, at making sentences, at sounding out words. And my eyes often skip lines, even with a bookmark or other marker, which I hate and never use. Back then, I'd go back and find I missed a paragraph somewhere; it's habit for me, when I'm confused, to rifle back as much as a chapter to scan for some turn of phrase that will help me out. Just as often, it's a foreshadow-thing I just didn't remember, and it makes me smile.

    If I could only reread three books, ever? Um…
    The Stars from Mars (the one I brought to college)
    All Creatures Great and Small (I read it in grade 6, after our teacher decided to assign our next books for book reports based on reading level. It wouldn't have hurt so much the first time if I didn't sit between The Cat in the Hat and Hardy Boys, and across from Sideways Stories from Wayside School.)
    …the last one's the toughest. Either something by Tamora Pierce or something by Diane Duane.

  9. Lisa Alber

    I don't reread. I get bored too easily, even with classics that I loved. I'm the same way about movies — rarely see a movie again, which is why I don't understand why people own vast movie collections. Although, I own a ton of books, so I don't make sense, even to myself…huh…I'm going to go back to bed for awhile–with IRON HOUSE by John Hart. Never read him before.

  10. Fran

    I'm an insomniac. And I read quickly. Always have.

    I re-read for comfort. I re-read books that have spoken to me in some way. I re-read Morris West's "The Clowns of God" pretty much every year and I always find something that speaks to me.

    I review a lot for the shop, and I'm afraid that because I review so much people will dismiss what I'm saying, but hey, it's my job and I can't shut up. Well, that's not true. There are several books you won't see reviewed because I like the author, don't want to alienate them from the shop, but . . .man. No. Just no. But I still review bunches of books, and that's because I read, I dunno, maybe three or four a week? Sometimes more? Depending on what's going on in my everyday life.

    And if I'm sleeping, which puts a damper on that constant reading.

    So sometimes I re-read to give myself a break from my "homework", but mostly I re-read because something in the back of my head tells me there's something in THIS particular book, or THAT particular series that I need to revisit. And I'm good with that.

    But if I was a slow reader, I strongly suspect my attitude would change. Life's too short to read bad books.

  11. Kaye Barley

    I'm a re-reader from way back. And sometimes I will immediately re-read a book I just finished. Actually, I do that quite a lot. When a book by one of my favorite authors comes out I will gobble it up to see what happens, but then I will re-read it to just settle in and enjoy the pacing and music of the words. Especially if it's someone who writes prose with the spirit and soul of a poet – like James Lee Burke.

    And, like your children, I've re-read all the Harry Potter novels and I'm sure I will again.

    Old favorites that send me a message that I might need to hear again are also on the list. Along with books I just love. And that's a good enough reason, I think. Just 'cause I love 'em.

    The new books I've read recently include authors Ellison, Rozan, Child, Lippman, Lane, O'Connell (ARC), Lawrenson, Hamilton, King and Krueger. All of which I enjoyed immensely. Will I re-read any them? Some of them, but no, not all of them.

    Fun Topic, Gar – Thanks!

  12. Gar Haywood

    To all those fast readers who have responded: I so envy you.

    Gayle: You've just given me a great idea for a future post. I'll credit you when the time comes.

    JD: You could probably solve that guilt problem if you stopped re-reading Patterson.

    Alaina: 700 pages in a night, Jesus! I can't tell if that sounds like fun or torture. And when you write…

    "On the second read, I'm just as fast, but I'm more likely to set the book down and spend a few minutes thinking. I like spotting the foreshadowing; THIS is a hint at the ending, THAT's where you first notice there's a crush; in hindsight, that's FUNNY. I've been rereading for just that reason since third or fourth grade."

    …I absolutely get it. That's a great reason to re-read something. If I could only read 700 PAGES IN ONE FRIGGIN' NIGHT!

    Fran: Bad books don't deserve one read, let alone two. But alas, we usually only realize that in hindsight.

  13. Kay

    There are certain books I regularly reread. One is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I reread it every summer. My teenaged son asked me, "Why do you read the SAME BOOK every summer?" My answer seemed obvious to me, "The book may be the same, but the READER is different. I'm not the same person I was when I read this the first time, or even last year."

    For that very reason, there are some books I loved years ago, but have mentally gagged on rereading years later. I've changed too much to be able to enjoy them again.

    Some books I reread for story, some for characters I dearly love and don't want to let go of, even thought the series is ended or the author is dead.

    I know new, wonderful books are being written all the time, and I'm missing some of them by rereading old favorites. I'm also missing meeting new, exciting friends by hanging out with my friends-for-decades. I still read new books and I still make new friends.

    It's a trade-off I need to make. Your mileage may vary.

  14. Gar Haywood

    Kay: You wrote…

    "…there are some books I loved years ago, but have mentally gagged on rereading years later. I've changed too much to be able to enjoy them again."

    Isn't that gravely disappointing in some cases? That's one of the fears that has kept me from re-reading up to this point. I'm terrified to learn that TRUE CONFESSIONS by Dominick Dunne, for instance, isn't really the fantastic read I remember it being.

  15. Sheri Hart

    I rarely re-read. There are simply too many great books out there still to be discovered. I find a new one every time I visit here!

    That said, there are a few books that I have reread a few times, and probably will again: the OUTLANDER series by Diana Gabaldon, the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, THE STAND by Stephen King, and HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad ( I think I had to read this one twice before I even began to appreciate it.)


  16. Rhonda Lane

    I used to re-read more, but not so much now. My TBR pile/mountain rose to K-2-esque heights before this current incarnation of the ebook revolution.

    Plus, the books I loved decades ago don't fit the new parameters for publishable work – big blocky paragraphs of text and too much passive voice. That just frustrates me.

    Yet, conversely, re-reading gives us a chance to take a closer look at story construction, for good or ill, and works as a great teaching aid because we can determine why a book "works" for us.

  17. Robin

    I'm a speed reader and read at least two to three books a week. And that's with slowing down. I've learned that reading that fast can make you miss things some time which are essential to the plot. I once read an Agatha Christie novel in which I misread that the narrator was the murderer. So when I got near the end of the story and it wasn't him, it surprised me. But that misunderstanding changed my reading of the story. So, I've tried to slow down to make sure don't miss any nuances. I used to never reread books but Nora Roberts changed that. She makes you fall in love with her characters and has so many different series. Have reread the In Death series (her alter ego J.D. Robb) twice now. I discover something new each time or pick up on the subtlety I may have missed. Recently discovered the joy of audiobooks and now listening to the first book in the series. All this rambling is just to say that yes, now I do reread books – going back to those I may have read way back when, finding either enjoy them more or now not my cup of tea. Most have stood the test of time. And even though I have a teetering TBR pile of new books, sometimes its just nice to visit an old friend. No guilt.

    3 books hmm? Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain. Bodie Thoene's First Light.

  18. Barbie

    I reread. Over and over and over and over again. And, honestly, I love it the same every single time. Sometimes, I love it more. I reread for comfort. I don't read for anticipation of what's going to happen, I read for the characters. I reread books from which characters touch me so deeply, that even though I already know those pages by heart (and some I do, I've read some books literally over 100 times — though, mostly, I just read my favorite parts, for comfort, for hugs, for company) I still get shivers and chills reading the words on page. Every. Single. Time. Often, I regret new reads for rereads. I read for safety. For friendship. Not for anticipation.

  19. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Great blog, Garster.
    I've read In Cold Blood, but not the other two – thanks for the great referral. I'll read them both, in time.
    I'm reading Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin currently. I'm loving it.
    I find it really important to re-read the books that really ring true. A few of the books I've read more than once: Fight Club (six times!), Homicide Special, The Fountainhead, Great Expectations, The Killer Inside Me, Out of Sight, Pop 1280, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I'm sure there are more. I get more out of a great book each time I read it.
    However…I'll never have time to read all the great books I want to read. And that's rather depressing.

  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I'm a devout rereader. I'd absolutely rather reach for something I KNOW is good, and discover new layers to that brilliance, than spend that time wading through three to seven hundred dozen new things out of which maybe one, maybe,,, will be as good.

    And if you ask me the problem with Tower Heist is not the title, but the words: Ben Stiller – and all they convey.

  21. Susan Shea

    If I ever make it to the end of my TBR list, I'll be amazed. Every time I hear a wonderful writer speak about her or his new book, I whip out my credit card even if I promised I'd refrain. Like you, Gar, I'm a slow reader. But I do make time to reread books that get my juices flowing on current projects, remind me of something stylistically I want to emulate, or will clear my mental palate. Right now, the 3 I'd choose for those reasons would be:

    Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
    one of the Dortmunder crime capers by Donald Westlake
    The Golden Spiders, Rex Stout

    Odd selection, I have to admit! But oddly relevant too.

  22. Reine

    Gar, hi – sorry to be so late.

    I used to reread everything many times as a child.

    As an adult I hve only reread the HARRY POTTER books. with each new book I read all the previous ones in the series. When I run out of books to read, or when I'm sent a poor selection of Talking Books, I will reread the series. I listen to as many versions as I can, both Jim Dale's and Steven Fry's. I love them both but adore Steven Fry. When I was at Oxford I walked over to Blackwell's and bought the the UK versions and had them shipped back to Boston. I enjoyed noticing the differences but most of all liked the art better. But I have all the versions. That was my last long walk, except the one through Heathrow, so I remember it all fondly.

    If I could only reread three books, I don't know, really, because I am so into series now. I think it's that over-time discovery and development that I love so much – for now, nyway.

  23. EB Snyder

    I live by the "so many books, so little time" motto. I've rarely re-read, but when I did, I only enjoyed the book more. George V Higgins, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" was one of these.

    And by the way, I just read Lenord's "Stick" not long ago. It's still amazing.

  24. David Corbett


    Yesterday was a buzzsaw, and I'm sorry I didn't comment until this morning. An editor I worked with once said that, as a writer, it's better to re-read the books that truly inspire you than to be more widely read. And so there are a few books I keep returning to over and over, because for me they're damn near perfect, and I learn from them every single time. IN no particular order:

    DOG SOLDIERS, Robert Stone
    GOD'S POCKET and DEADWOOD, Pete Dexter
    CLOCKERS and LUSH LIFE, Richard Price
    CASE HISTORIES, Kate Atkinson
    THE 25TH HOUR, David Benioff
    THEFT, Peter Carey
    UNKNOWN MAN #89, Elmore Leonard

    I don't always read them in full, sometimes just passages, but I go back to them often.

    great post. And again, apologies for the tardiness.

  25. Brenda

    I am an inveterate rereader though recent rereads have mostly been poetry and snippets of nonfiction when I don't have as much time to read as I would like to have to devote to something that requires that first time concentration. I think the only person I have known who said he did NOT reread was my dad. He always said he didn't reread, said he didn't have time, would ask me the highlights of novels I had read since he felt didn't have time to read fiction at the time either. (He read nonfiction for his work as well as for enjoyment.) He reread poetry. It turned out he didn't have much time at all and of course as you point out none of us have enough.

    Off the top of my head in a hurry, I would say if I could only reread three books they might be:
    (1) my dad's college English text which has bits of so much that is great in English literature up until 1940;
    (2) Either (fiction) "Arch of Triumph" by Remarque or (nonfiction) Upton Sinclair's "the Profits of Religion" or "the Complete Thomas Hardy Poems";
    (3) Somerset Maugham's "Best Short Stories of 1939."

    I'll be rereading "To Kill A Mockingbird" again soon. Her sentence construction looks easy but is so meticulously put together, making things so vivid. It is a must have for rereading.

    And, oh, dear, life just isn't as great without rereading the various Rumpoles. I already need to reread "Rumpole Misbehaves" and it hasn't been that long since the first reading.

    Regarding "In Cold Blood," I recall it was great from my original teen perspective. I will look forward to your retake on it. I don't think I would like it as much on reread as some of it was fictionalized & I dislike that in a nonfiction book. I was interested to read that Harper Lee did A LOT of work on it and was not given much credit by Truman Capote. I'll be interested how you think of it knowing that too.

    As you see, I cannot do just three. I know there are great writers living that I have not mentioned whose books not being reread will make my life less rich. (And since I haven't had a chance to read your books yet it might be that one of them would be on it. I certainly enjoy your posts.)

  26. Reine

    Okay. Okay. I have reread and would choose to read the Brendan O'Carroll three: THE CHISELLERS, THE MAMMY, and THE GRANNY.

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