Play it again, Sam. Or, why we reread

We’ve all done it: faced with a stack of unread books, we pick up an old, trusty one, its spine cracked and story long ago memorized.  We think, ‘ooh, maybe its time to reread this again!”

Why do certain books and series inspire us to reread them?  What is it that makes rereading a pleasure rather than a tiresome bore?

Since I’ve just tucked into the Harry Potter series for the third go-round, these questions are on my mind.  What possesses me to plow through thousands of pages after already having done it twice?  Upon reflection, I think I’ve lit on a few factors that make a book rereadable:

1. Books that are intricately plotted.

The Potter books provide a good example here.  While there are flaws with the writing – you can accuse it of being too simplistic, find repetitive descriptions, etc. – I argue Rowling is great at planting seeds for plot devices that won’t become important for several books.  The opal necklace used to curse one of the students in “Half Blood Prince” is first seen by Harry in Knockturn Alley in Book 2.  Also in Book 2, we learn Voldemort inadvertently transferred a part of himself into Harry when his curse rebounded, something that shapes the eventual denouement in the final book.  Either Rowling knew exactly what was going to happen (which would be incredible) or was very good at going back to mine earlier books for plot devices as she developed later portions of the story.  It’s delightful to reread and mine out these little treasures (yes, I am a nerd).

2.  Books that deliver excellent surprises

Well-crafted twists and turns are a treat to revisit.  What unfolded the first time as a series of deftly created surprises, reads the second or third time as a how-to demonstration.  Rereading, you can hunt for clues, wondering how you missed them the first time around.  Creating a good surprise is a keen authorial trick – you want the reader to feel that, rather than having been hoodwinked, the surprise is the very thing they wanted to happen all along but didn’t know it.  Not easy to do.  Stories pulling off the good surprise are fun to reread because we relish the surprise AND because we like to go back and see how it was done.

3. Books with really satisfying endings.

There are plenty of books I loved 99% of and hated the ending.  Endings are tough, it’s easy for them to fall short of expectations.  As an author, you have to bring all those plot threads together, balance the scales in a way that’s consistent with the characters and their prior behavior, create a sense of “aha!” (those tricky surprises) and satisfy the reader’s sense of justice.  So, when this is done properly, it’s just damn satisfying and you want to relish it again and again.

4. Books with beloved characters.

Some books we reread not because the story itself was anything special, but because of the character(s).  A character you want to spend time with, even if it means retreading their old adventures, is a rare treasure.  Here I think of Sookie Stackhouse in the first few novels of the Southern Vampire series (not to be confused with the whining, annoying Sookie of the later books or the girl in the TV show…not having a TV, I’ve not seen True Blood).

5. And, finally, there’s the sheer comfort of reading a story that you know is going to delight you. There’s no anxiety it might turn out poorly.  You know the plot isn’t going to fall apart halfway through or that the characters will do something you just can’t forgive.

So, what books can you just not seem to put down?  For me it’s classics like the Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and, as an odd outlier, a funny old book called The Eight, by Katherine Neville.  What about you?

2 thoughts on “Play it again, Sam. Or, why we reread

  1. Sean Craven

    This is an aspect of fantasy and SF that doesn’t get discussed much, but what draws me most strongly to genre fiction is its visionary aspect — the pictures it paints in your head.

    One reason why some seemingly light fiction draws me back again and again is the imagery it summons, and the way that imagery deepens on each re-reading.

    Also, I find that particular works of fiction are well-suited to certain moods. In some cases, they’re even therapeutic. And like music, they can take you back to certain times and places — the pleasures they provide are deeper and more involved than just the fiction itself. This is why I find myself concerned by things like editions and illustrations and so on. The book has to be ‘right.’

    And hey. When I was a hardcore fiction junkie, tossing back two or three books a day routinely, there was no way to survive if I read only new stuff. There wasn’t enough of it!

    1. mirandasuri

      I hadn’t considered the sense memory aspects of rereading. That’s really interesting, and I think goes along with (and deepens) the idea that rereading is somehow “comforting.” Thanks for chiming, Sean!

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