Running Over the Same Old Ground

by  J.D. Rhoades

During Allison’s discussion of “Epic Books” the other day, several commenters mentioned books they’d read over and over and might read again. That got me thinking because, at the time, I was re-reading a book I hadn’t read in years: Mark Twain’s THE INNOCENTS ABROAD. And, I confess, I was feeling a little guilty about it.

I know that’s absurd. After all, INNOCENTS ABROAD is a great book. It reminded me of why I love Twain. The passages where he’s  in the Holy Land, recounting various absurd claims made on behalf of local landmarks, each narrative ending with the solemn affirmation that  “of course,we know this to be true”, are Twain at his skeptical and ironic best. Twain knew that sometimes, the best way to satirize something foolish was  to present it as it is, without embellishment or burlesque, just a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.  TV’s Jon Stewart is a master of the same technique.

But much as I enjoyed it, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of the steadily growing TBR pile beside the bed. All those books you haven’t read, one of that multitude of small voices in the back of my head nagged, and here you are going back and wasting time with something you’ve already read. And you know you’re going to be getting more books  for Christmas, so you’ll get even further behind.

Like I said, absurd. Hey, it’s not always easy living inside my skull.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in the days of my youth, I used to read  THE LORD OF THE RINGS at least once every couple of years. There are some Heinlein novels, like STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, GLORY ROAD, and STARSHIP TROOPERS, that I must have read five or six times each.  I’ve read most of the Travis McGee books at least twice. Hammett’s RED HARVEST and THE MALTESE FALCON,  three times.

Somewhere along the way, though, the  leisure time shrank, while  the number of books I wanted to read expanded. And re-reading a book I’d already read seemed like a waste of time that would be better spent exploring something new.

But, you know, I get over it. And when I do break down and pick up an old book, it sometimes shows me how much I’ve changed. The last time I picked up THE LORD OF THE RINGS, for instance, Tolkien’s formal, mythic prose, which had previously thrilled me,  seemd a bit stilted. After a  decade or so of coming to love spare, lean, noirish writing, one of my formerly favorite lines in the book, Eowyn’s defiance of  the Nazgul who’s just told her “no living man” can kill him:

No living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You  stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.

…suddenly seemed almost comical. The movie version, with an excellent performance by  Miranda Otto, boiled the line down to a snarled  “I am no MAN!” followed by a vicious sword thrust to the face (or where the face ought to be). That, after all this time,  had become much more satisfying. More hardboiled, so to speak.

INNOCENTS ABROAD also struck me a little differently. For the first time,  I noticed that Twain’s more than a bit of a North European chauvinist. He finds the French and the Russians charming; the Italians, the Turks, and the Arabs, not so much. Now, maybe everything south and east of France really was as dirty, squalid, and diseased as Twain makes it out to be, and I have no problem believing that the Syria-Lebanon-Palestine trail was (and is)  a parched and rocky hellhole. Maybe it’s just cultural oversenstivity making me wonder why, the darker the people get, the harder Twain is on them. Maybe the next time I re-read it, I’ll feel differently.

So tell me, dear ‘Rati: am I the only one who feels a little guilty getting sucked into a previously read book when there are so many unread ones on the TBR pile? Do you ever go back to a book you’ve read before and find it a very different experience from the other times? What book have you re-read the most times?

18 thoughts on “Running Over the Same Old Ground

  1. Karen in Ohio

    Ah, Dusty, Innocents Abroad is one of my favorite books! I re-read it about every 10 years, just to experience Twain at his best. You can have your Huck and your Tom and Becky; IA is a true gem.

    As for his apparent bias, give the man a break. He wrote that book more than 100 years ago, in 1869, and there was no such thing as politically correct at the time. It’s fascinating to see how we’ve changed, and how we haven’t, since then. Don’t feel guilty; reading Twain is like taking a mini-class on how to write a great book.

  2. Louise Ure

    I haven’t given myself the luxury of rereading an old book for a long, long time. I look forward to some of the comments here, just to see how the other half lives.

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great Expectations is the book I go back to, whenever I can. Just to capture the poetry of a sentence, the wit of a character, the craft of telling a good story. A Wrinkle in Time is one I re-read as a kid. But I do feel that guilt as well–I want to re-read The Fountainhead and The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but there’s just….no damn time, now, is there?

  4. Rashda

    I’ve an entire shelf dedicated to books I re-read from time to time. This is my "Keepers Shelf" and I love each and every one of the books on it.

    Three Singles to Adventure –Gerald Durrell
    Naked in Death –J.D. Robb
    Tiger Eye — Marjorie M. Liu
    Weddings Can Be Murder — Christie Craig
    The Secret Life of Bees — Sue Monk Kidd

    This doesn’t mean I don’t read new books. The latest being "Soulless by Gail Carriger." I love reading!

  5. Stacy McKitrick

    I’d have to say the book I’ve re-read the most was Stephen King’s "The Gunslinger". And that was only because every time I waited the YEARS for the next book to come out, I would re-read all the others, in order, to get back into the story. The sad thing is, "The Gunslinger" wasn’t my favorite in the bunch, but it ended up being read the most!

    I’m also guilty of reading the Twilight series three times. Each time I read them I got something different out of it. It’s sort of what made me decide to write my own love story. So I will always be grateful for those books, which opened up a whole new world for me.

  6. Kaye Barley

    I’m a re-reader.
    Sometimes when the newest entry in one of my favorite series comes out, I’ll go back and re-read the earlier books before reading the latest.
    Some books I’ll re-read because the story has an un-ending hold on me (Ann Fairbairn’s "Five Smooth Stones"), or because I just love sinking into the beauty of the words.
    Even though there are tons and tons of wonderful new books out there, I sometimes have trouble finding one that’s right for my mood of the moment and will pick up something I know is just right for right then.
    Do I feel guilty? Naah – but then, I’m not one to give in to guilt too often.

  7. Dana King

    I make a point to read at least one book of each of these authors every year: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ed McBain, and Elmore Leonard. If a new book is out, that’s fine, but death has seriously cut into the production of the first three on the list.

    I also promised myself earlier this year that I’m going to try to re-read a few more once in a while. Some writers (Lehane, some of the older Robert B. Parker, Vonnegut, and, coincidentally, Twain.) and some specific books (THE RIGHT STUFF, Bruce Catton’s Civil War History, some others).

    Re-reading is a way to stay in touch with your originas as a reader, as well as measure your growth. I really do hope to do more of it in the next year.

  8. toni mcgee causey

    I have a few favorites I re-read. Reading is my go-to joy. It’s what I escape in, so there’s no guilt as far as I’m concerned if I want to revisit a time and place that I enjoyed once before.

    As a writer, I want to revisit the books which caused me to find that joy, to get lost in that world and figure out what it is that resonated with me. Look at the language, the pacing, the worldview, and absorb and learn, dissect and analyze. Truly great favorites will draw me in and I’ll forget I’m re-reading to learn and suddenly, I’m deep into the story again, lost in that world, and I am always so awed by that, it makes me love the authors even more. If they manage to switch off my internal analytical response, they’ve done an amazing job, and it makes me even more determined to figure out how.

    But mostly, like Kaye, I’ll just be in a mood and need something specific in that moment and I’ll know that an old favorite will be just the ticket. It’s like a snowboarder going down a familiar slope, or eating a fine favorite meal at a favorite restaurant — sometimes I just want to have the comfort of knowing that the effort is going to be worth the time.

    That said, I do re-read much less now that I’m older, have more obligations, and keep discovering amazing new voices in my newly purchased piles. Heaven, for me, would be eternity getting to read everything I ever wanted, without other obligations interfering.

  9. JT Ellison

    I’m definitely a re-reader sans guilt. Why beat yourself up – if it’s something you know you’ll enjoy, where’s the harm in that?

    I’ll mention a new book that I love to re-read, HERE BE DRAGONS by Sharon Kay Penman. It was an offshoot of my fascination with all things King Author, and an introduction to the early English historical fiction, a genre I adore to this day!

  10. pari noskin taichert

    Yep, I’m a re-reader too.

    I often go back to old Dick Francis novels or Robert Parker’s early Spenser books.

    Also re-read the Miles Vorkorsigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold and many of Orson Scott Card’s series: Ender and Seventh Son.

    Looking at the above, I wonder how I end up reading so many new books too. I guess that’s one reason I never get enough sleep.

  11. pari noskin taichert

    BTW: When you spoke about books changing for you, I thought of a movie right away. I remember seeing Throw Mama from the Train in college and thinking it was the funniest thing there was. A decade later, I was mortified.

  12. Nancy Laughlin

    I love to reread old favorites. Of course, I also love to wear old comfortable sweaters until they are literally falling apart, so there you go. My favorite reread authors are: Patricia Wrede, Ann Macaffrey, J. D. Robb, Helen McGinnis (anyone remember her?) and Dorothy Gillman.

    I sometimes feel guilty too for rereading. I now have four stacks of books overflowing my bookcases waiting for me to catch up with the new books.

    I did reread a book not long ago that I didn’t enjoy this time around. It was a Dorothy Gillman, one I hadn’t read in years. It was never one of my favorite Mrs. Pollifax stories, but I remember liking it at the time. This time around though, I wondered where all the clever plotting disappeared to. I couldn’t find it. Now I’m afraid to reread another in case I don’t like it either.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Said it the other day, but I’m a dedicated and not guilty rereader,. And not just old favorites. When I read Ann Patchett’s BEL CANTO, as soon as I finished it I started right over again, it was that good.

  14. JD Rhoades

    Why beat yourself up

    Hey, it’s what I do….

    Looks like we’ve got quite a few re-readers here…and now I feel like I’ve got to pull out the old Bujolds and Vonneguts…and pick up some JD Robb. It never ends….

  15. BCB

    I know I’m in the minority (have previously had this discussion with others and been soundly beaten up for my deficiency), but I can’t re-read. I’ve tried. Several times I’ve bought a book by a prolific favourite author, really looking forward to one that I’d missed, only to get a paragraph or two into it and realize it was a re-release and I’d read it before. I’ve learned to check copyright dates before I buy. And to read the first couple paragraphs.

    Pretty sure I don’t have a photographic memory, but I do clearly remember books I’ve already read. I guess a huge part of the appeal for me is not knowing what happens. Once I know, I have zero interest in reading it again. Though I have gone back and studied various sections of books from a writing standpoint, trying to figure out how something particularly effective was accomplished.

    But I do share the frustration mentioned by others, the certainty that there will never be enough time to read all those intriguing stories even once. Can’t imagine feeling compelled to read them twice. You all have my condolences. 😉

  16. PK the Bookeemonster

    I plan to be a re-reader. I’m starting to save favorite series and standalones for the future leisure time I’ll perhaps have accrued — and maybe have forgotten the details of so they can enjoyed almost anew. Currently, however, I cannot afford to re-read — I just have too much to read, too many series I’m in the middle of, too many authors I plan to get to, etc. I’d like to re-read the Harry Potter books so I can enjoy them at a slower pace and go through books with which I’ve grown up.

    I have on very rare occasion re-read extremely quickly (take a day out of the regular read) the ultra favorites when I need a hit of super romance: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and PERSUASION usually. I’m also the same way with ultra favorite movies: Gosford Park, the two Austens from above, North and South (UK miniseries)….

  17. Kagey

    Very late to the party but what the hey:
    I think re-reading is a great thing to do, especially if it contains deep thoughts and it’s been some time since your first read.
    I took a "great books" class my freshman year of college. A major work every 1-2 weeks and a paper that often, too. It was not a class for sissies.
    As a senior I TA’d the class – helping students understand context of whatever we were tackling that week. (As well as basics, like how to pronounce the names in the Bagavaghita.) And I could not believe how much those books had "changed" since I read them just 3 years before!
    It’s fun to re-read a great adventure story or a timeless romance, but some of the greatest books out there need re-reading to be fully absorbed.


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