At the Back Fence Issue #251

January 15, 2007

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

To Reread or Not To Reread

When I was young, I reread books all the time. Most of my favorites came from the library, and I just checked them out whenever I wanted to reread them. I reread books all the time – everything from The Big Joke Game to The Prince of Central Park to The Spaceship under the Apple Tree series. Even as I got older, I reread some of my favorite adult books, such as The Rosary Murders. In those days I had more time to read, and less access to bookstores, and thus no TBR pile (yet). Or maybe this was because an important part of growing up is having someone read a favorite story to you over and over again. What better was to capture that than rereading? But now, with time constraints and a TBR pile, I rarely reread.

I began to contemplate the habit of rereading over the summer, when watching my teen-aged nephew read books at the beach. I gave him a copy of James Rollins’ thriller Amazonia and Eric Flint’s alternative history novel 1632 and then noticed that he had read both through at least twice in less than a week. Later, he got another thriller and read that once or twice. Ironically, 1632 was one of my few rereads this year, and I finished it on my way to the beach, just in time to give it to my nephew.

Seeing my nephew immerse himself over and over again in the same worlds brought back memories. Except for 1632, it seemed so long since I had indulged in rereading. I know I’m rare among romance fans. From what I read on board, many reread their favorites often. Some classify books by whether or not they plan to reread them. For example, Varina admits that she sometimes grades a book down a little if she thinks she won’t be able to reread it. She gave Raine Cantrell’s Tarnished Hearts a B+ instead of an A- because she thought the villains were “too slimy to wade through again.” Because she rereads books every year, a book’s potential to hold her interest again, can be a factor in her original enjoyment of it.

While most readers don’t take rereading that much to heart, rereading is a big part of the romance reader community. A romance reader named, Shelly tells us that she keeps romances that rate from A to B+ for rereading even though she doesn’t always get around to it. To Shelly, revisiting a favorite romance is like coming home. “Familiar people and situations that can take you away to someplace warm and exciting and maybe nostalgic. Kind of like going home for Thanksgiving minus the calories.” Books that aren’t so comforting get different treatment. While Shelly loves Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s St. Germain series, she generally doesn’t reread them because she finds them too depressing. Compare that to a romance, where you know you’ll get that HEA.

Like Shelly, there are some books I adore, but can’t imagine rereading. These are books that are good enough to keep on a DIK shelf, but are too wrenching to reread. M. J. Engh’s SF novel Arslan sits on my DIK shelf. It’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it books, and I loved it. But I can’t imagine rereading the story of an Asian dictator who takes over the U.S. and sets up his headquarters in a small town, after some shocking acts of brutality in a school. The novel is full of horrid events, made all the worse because they take place in a small town. Do I really want to reread the brutal incidents that powered this novel? Uhm, not really; I don’t want to reread Arslan though the book includes incredibly complex characters. Rereading a romance never presents this problem, even if it is one with violence and brutality. After all, the romance is going to end happily, no matter what happens.

I am not alone in this. Another romance reader, Dolly posted that she likes revisiting a story because she can experience it without getting angsty about how the story will work out. Dolly likes listening to audio versions of favorite books. It gives her a chance to revisit a story while driving or doing major housecleaning projects – without getting angsty about how the plot will work out.

Dolly made me think of something else, the joys of rereading when you are sick or feeling bad. Dolly’s a big Gabaldon fan and she listened to Outlander while recuperating from surgery. She found herself spellbound.

Karen W said something similar. Karen rereads when she’s sick and wants a comfort read, or when she’s read several bad books in a row and doesn’t want to read anything new, or when she’s had an awful day and just wants “to read something warm and fuzzy.” Lynne Connolly turns to rereading when she’s sick or feeling down, or when she doesn’t want to be disappointed by an inferior book. Or when she simply wants to revisit “old friends.”

I wish I had thought of Dolly’s audio book solution when I was sick. When recuperating from surgery, I tried rereading Anne Rice’s Cry from Heaven, and it didn’t work. I have used audio books to relive certain favorites. Much depends on the narrator. I had to give up on one thriller because the narrator put me to sleep. But I loved listening to F. Murray Abraham narrate The Phantom of the Opera because he brought the characters to life.

While Dolly and Karen rereads books to take their minds off chores, problems or illness, Falcon, a frequent AARList poster, rereads because she likes revisiting the characters and the story. While she knows how it her book will turn out, each reread is like “a different ride.” When she rereads, she feels anticipation, just as she would if she were reading that book for the first time. This lets her relive the excitement and adventure of the story as well as letting her achieve that same satisfaction when she reaches the end.

What books do we like to revisit? Ironically, it’s not necessarily the books we consider the best. For example, when I was a teen, I was blown away by William Sleator’s angst futuristic young adult novel House of Stairs, about a group of misfit teens trapped in a building of endless sets of stairs. Though it was short, I never reread it. It was too intense and creepy. I was more likely to reread something like Beverly Cleary’s Henry and Ribsy books. And I reread one children’s mystery book … well, just because. It took place in a beach community, and I loved visiting those characters and wishing I could stay with them and play in the waves all the time.

Similarly, Karen W has noticed this phenomenon among her rereads. The books she rereads might be flawed, but she keeps them because of the way they make her feel. Her rereads tends to be comfort reads – something she turns to when she wants to feel “warm and fuzzy inside.” At the same time, she can love a book and yet never want to return to it. What makes the difference between a reread and something Karen doesn’t necessarily want to read again? For Karen, the characters are the most important aspect. Some characters are so appealing to her that she wants to visit them again. But if a book’s characters aren’t as nice, she won’t reread their story, even if she enjoyed the book.

Another reason to reread it to increase our understanding of what an author is trying to say. Rereading can help us get a handle on a complicated series and increase our understanding of the latest book. Gretchen rereads books in a series whenever a new book comes out. She’ll read previous books by Diana Gabaldon whenever a new Outlander book comes out. She’ll also reread earlier books in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series before reading a new book in those series. This kind of rereading can prevent a lot of problems. I know how it feels like to get back into a complex series without rereading what came before. This summer, I reread 1632 because I wanted to read the other books in the series (as well as the anthologies). I planned to skim over 1632, but once I started it, I ended up sinking back into the novel. That was a good thing because I enjoyed it more the second time around. Some of the plot elements that originally bothered me (such as the way one of the villains falls out of sight for a big chunk of the book) no longer bugged me. I also came to like the writing more, and I appreciated the romantic subplots most of all the second time around, probably because I knew who would end up together.

In the case of complex series or individual books, that sense of finding something new every time you reread a book drives a lot of rereaders. Lynne Connolly rereads Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond books. “You read first for the story – the breathtaking roller-coaster ride that is Lymond’s adventures – the second, maybe to clarify some of the ambiguities in the text, that don’t spoil reading the book as an adventure, but things I’d like to know more about, then there’s a read for the subtexts, and the poetry – you just never stop!”

Like Lynne, author Tracy Grant rereads some books because the story is so rich that she wants to capture the nuances. She also rereads stories to revisit old friends as comfort reads. In some cases, she rereads a book (or just a scene) to figure out how the author does it. (She reread some scenes from the Lymond books for just this reason.)

I’m no stranger to rereading individual scenes, but unlike Tracy, I usually do it just because I’m such a book geek. Even if I don’t always have the time to reread, I can always revisit my favorite parts of a book and get back that old familiar feeling. I was a huge Dragonlance fan; I used to reread the scenes with some of my favorite characters (particularly Raistlin). I particularly enjoyed rereading emotional or dramatic scenes. As far as rereading romances goes, I reread the love scene on the steps in Theresa Weir’s Cool Shade more times than I care to admit. And I used to reread parts of one of Valerie Vayle’s swashbuckling romances quite often. (In a time when most historical romances were bodice rippers full of unheroic heroes, her book was fun, and it helped wash the taste of some of the other books out of my mouth.)

Like Tracy Grant, Kelli started out rereading to learn more about more about the mechanics of writing a great story. She found it fascinating to reread older romances written only from the heroine’s POV because “trying to see things from the hero’s POV when you have nothing but his actions to go on is very enlightening.” However, now she finds herself rereading just because she liked the story.

Varina also rereads books to relive particularly scenes or relationships in those books but she also understands the scenes better on rereading. She’s read the Christmas Eve scene in LaVyrle Spencer’s repeatedly Forgiving and, even after reading it a second or third time, the scene isn’t spoiled. It is more poignant because she knows the details and background so well.

Like Varina, I recently had several “Aha!” moments after rereading (and I should be blushing to admit that I reread this!) V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic. I read this book soon after it first came out, becoming one of the first teenagers to get hooked on that blasted series. I had pretty much grown out of Andrews’ stories (particularly after reading My Sweet Audrina), and I couldn’t get into any of the books written by the ghostwriter after her death. But out of nostalgia (prodded by an on-line discussion), I reread Flowers not long ago. From the very beginning, I was amazed by some of the foreshadowing I had missed the first time around. For example, in the very first chapter, hints about the mother’s greed and flightiness are dangled right in front of the reader. In the minus column, I had utterly forgotten how wordy V. C. Andrews could be, not to mention how melodramatic. So while I enjoyed (to a point!) seeing the plot unfold again, the writing style and overblown emotions sometimes seemed to hammer on my brain.

Rereading doesn’t always work of course. While Varina liked rereading Lavyrle Spencer’s Forgiving, she didn’t enjoy rereading that author’s Morning Glory. Instead of “enjoying the ride,” she got impatient with the scenery. She also noticed those little “glitches” in the story, as well as noticing things such as purple prose. She no longer found it as gripping as she did the first time, so maybe that’s why so many parts of it became distractions. And maybe this is why she is reluctant to reread some of her favorites.

A number of readers on AARList seemed to have problems rereading. Karen W told us that, except for a select few books, her rereading experience has been frustrating. When she rereads a book, she keeps noticing the flaws. Consequently, even if she really likes a book, she usually trades it in. Karla has also been frustrated by rereads. Like Karen, she rereads infrequently. Diane Farr’s The Fortune Hunter and an older Amanda Quick both disappointed her because she knew what was going to happen.

My biggest problem with rereading happens when my tastes change. There are some books I haven’t dared reread, such as Rebecca Brandewyne’s Passion Moon Rising and Upon a Moon-Dark Moor. At the time, I enjoyed them even as I rolled my eyes at their flaws. If I tried rereading them today, I’d probably wind up flinging them across the room the first time the hero ordered the heroine around or the first time the heroine did something TSTL. I also attempted reading early Kathleen Woodiwiss again to see if I could still enjoy her books, despite the very alpha heroes. In one case, I didn’t even make it to the appearance of the hero because I was too annoyed by the prose.

I won’t give up on rereading nor will I stop saving copies of books in case I might reread them. There is something about books we enjoyed that is meaningful, even when we don’t know when we will get to them. It’s natural. Jo Beverley remembers rereading a lot as a child, although she doesn’t have as much time to reread now because she is so busy writing. “After all, as children we all do that, don’t we? Asking someone to read something to us again and again.” Jo wonders if rereading is a way to recreate that experience.

For all my … issues… with the prose, rereading Flowers in the Attic was a fascinating experience that allowed me to relive V. C. Andrews’ power as a writer and indulge in a bit of nostalgia. And rereading 1632 was a joy. Maybe I should try this rereading thing more often. Now where did I put that Valerie Vayle romance that I used to love?…

Questions To Consider:

Do you like to reread, and if so, do you reread often or just when you’re sick or depressed or in a rut?

If you reread, why? And how do you pick the books to reread?

If you don’t reread, then why not? Also, do you make exceptions, and if so, what are those exceptions?

Are there some books you will reread, and some books you know you will never reread? What are the differences between the types of books?

Have you ever had a reread go bad? For example, have you ever tried to reread an old favorite and found that you hated it?

Do you give books a different grade if you know you probably won’t reread it, or is the rereadability separate from your personal grade?

Anne Marble

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