Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Lost Art Of Re-Reading A Book

I've been a bit slow with my blogging lately, which is down to two things. Firstly, work has reached one of it's even-busier-than-usual points in the year, when around 80% of my time is spent either working or thinking about work, 15% is spent sleeping and the rest of the time I'm eating. Not a hugely healthy lifestyle, nor one that allows for a lot of anything fun (although eating and sleeping are two pursuits of mine that I usually enjoy immensely). As a result - and this leads to the second thing - I've been severely lacking in time to read. This has been made worse by the fact that I am attempting to read two books at the same time, which are  both incredibly different to each other, and both entirely new to me: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, and The Time Traveller's Guide To Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. I have to say, I'm mostly enjoying this dual-reading; when I tire of Yossarian deeming everyone to be crazy except himself in Catch 22, I can turn to a hugely entertaining book on the normal, every day aspects of medieval life that you tend to forget about, what with all the wars and plagues - what people wore, how they got themselves from one part of the country to another without a map, and so on. They both have their merits, and are both, in their own ways, really funny - so, considering one is a modern classic, and the other is a history book, I should be in my element, right?

No, no. I cannot relax with these books. This is not because they are not good books. It is because they are new to me, and so I have to concentrate on every page. I have already slipped up a few times with both - I got a bit bored learning about medieval currency in Time Traveller's Guide, and now I have no idea what the author means when he says such-and-such will cost you 7s 2d. Similarly, in Catch 22, I  had to read one conversation between two characters four times, because my mind kept wandering to things like, 'did I send that email on Friday?' 'I mustn't forget to do that on Monday!' and 'I'm so, so sleepy...' I just can't quite let myself get as absorbed as I usually do, no matter how much I want to. Instead, my mind keeps turning to an article on The Guardian last week, on the merits of re-reading books. The more I think of it, the more re-reading a book becomes a far more attractive possibility at the moment.

This is a subject I have touched upon before myself, in my own entry for World Book Day, in which I explored some of the elements that contribute to making a book a good one. I concluded, rather diplomatically, that it doesn't matter what you're told makes a good book, but what you feel is a good book, and that 'good books are the ones on the shelf that are dog-eared and battered, and they'll be different in every home.' Obviously, to batter and dog-ear the books, they have to be read and re-read time and again. So what brings a reader back to the same book? There's billions of books out there, in a myriad of languages and genres, books you've never imagined, subjects you've never explored, characters you've never encountered. There are bookshops and libraries all over the country, e-books all over the internet, and any number of websites who will send any book you like direct to your house - some will even recommend some new ones for you. Why not reach for a new one every time?

I can't speak for others, but I can speak for myself. A new read is thrilling; even before you've opened the book, what you're holding could well be your new favourite book. I'm quite flighty in my choices - ask me my favourite book in the morning and I could well have a different answer by the evening - but for me, precious little beats reading that first page for the first time, becoming immersed in the story, becoming familiar with a new world. Regular readers of this blog (hi, you two - thanks guys) may have seen that I did not get on very well with American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, but one thing I did enjoy hugely was the fact that I had absolutely no clue about what was going to happen next - the plot was entirely unpredictable, and it kept me on my toes. I love that about a new book, the discovery of it - both in terms of it's plot and my relationship with it, be it positive or negative.

However, I did say 'precious little' beats a first-time reading of a book. That 'precious little' is re-reading a book. You might know the plot, you might think you know the characters, you might think you know every little event that occurs - but the fact is, you don't. An English teacher of mine once said that you can never know a book cover to cover, because every time you read it, you'll discover something new - a word to describe a character that changes your perspective of them, a scene you've managed to dismiss as unimportant during every previous read, even a witty comment you've never found witty before. Most importantly though, if you've read a book several times over a long period of time, you yourself will change, and so will your views. A character who was once despicable to you, suddenly is one you sympathise with. That scene that seemed so superfluous, you suddenly connect with a later event in the novel which increases the earlier scene's importance. An event in your own life may suddenly connect you to a book in a way you never anticipated. Suddenly, just knowing how it ends, and how the characters get there, is not important; it's what you learn as you travel the same road. It's a bit like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day - eventually, he becomes so familiar with his surroundings, he is able to see things that, the first time around, he was blind to. When you re-read a book, you already know the important bits, leaving your mind free to explore the subtler elements of the plots and characters.

Of course, this is the 'clever' way of looking at it. The reason why re-reading a book has become such an attractive option to me right now is because I can do it for the sheer pleasure of indulging in a creature comfort. With a re-read, I know where I stand; there will not be any unexpected surprises, and I will know when I can put it down, because I know the main plot back to front already. If my mind wanders a tad, I will not be missing anything I don't already know - no crucial plot points, no essential information, will be missed. I can sit back, relax, and know that, no matter what happens, this person will travel to this place with this person, where such a thing will happen, and this will result in this particular conclusion. No guesswork, no extra attention required. If I want to learn more from it, I can, by paying more attention to the text. Alternatively, if I'm just needing something to help me drift off to sleep at night (in the same manner as a whale-song CD does for others, or nightlights, not because it's boring) then a re-read is the thing I need.

The trouble at the moment is, I've re-read all my books so many times, I don't particularly want to read any of them. How's that for a catch 22.

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