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?

At what cost victory?

**Warning: this post contains spoilers about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows**

Like much of America, I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows this weekend, and, despite my grim determination not to, I got choked up at the death of Dobby.  I’d read the books, so I knew it was coming, but I just couldn’t help myself.  In addition to clearing out my tear ducts, Dobby’s death also got me thinking about the cost of the hero’s victory.

In real life our achievements always come with a cost.  You can’t become a marathon runner without putting in the time and enduring injury.  You wouldn’t expect to win a war without loss of life or resources.  If you want to walk on the moon, you have to accept the risk that your space shuttle might explode and kill you on take-off.  If your dream is to become a writer, you have to endure a fair amount of rejection and self-loathing along the way.  Nothing worth doing or having comes for free.

As in life, so in art.  Whatever it is our characters are trying to achieve, we as authors must make them pay a price to get it.  The tricky bit, though, is figuring out the appropriate cost.  Over the course of her seven book journey with Harry and friends, J.K. Rowling kills off several major characters close to Harry, including (among others) Cedric Diggory, Sirius Black, Dumbledore, Mad Eye Moody, Hedwig, Dobby, Remus Lupin, Colin Creevey, and Fred Weasley.  George Weasley has his ear cursed off and Harry himself “dies” in order to destroy the Horcrux inside him.

All in all, a pretty hefty toll, I think–enough to reflect the dangerous nature of the war against Voldemort but not so much as to feel that Harry ultimately failed by not ending the reign of the Death Eaters sooner.  Some of the deaths had more impact than others (and reactions to them vary from reader to reader), but because it’s freshest in my mind – thanks to movie magic – I want to reflect briefly on Dobby’s death.

I think making Dobby’s life one of the costs of Harry’s fight against Voldemort was clever (and even a bit manipulative).  Dobby was beloved by many readers but wasn’t a main character, and because his character was child-like, his death felt especially cruel.  At the same time, Rowling had established that it was Dobby’s greatest wish to protect Harry.  Thus, because Dobby died protecting Harry–and in so doing thwarted the plans of the Death Eaters–the reader can find meaning in Dobby’s death.  It’s a cost, yes, and one that tugs at the reader’s heartstrings and amplifies the villainous nature of Bellatrix (as if we need more of that). But it’s not the kind of cost that will profoundly effect Harry for the rest of his life or create a serious setback along his road to success.  It motivates Harry without making him bitter or vindictive.  The same can be said for many of the other deaths in the books (with the possible exception of Dumbledore).

This is clearly one route to go.  Kill off beloved but non-essential characters (extra points if they die making a sacrifice for the hero or his/her quest).  Another commonly tread route is to open the story with the death of someone close to the protagonist and set the narrative up as a revenge plot.  Think of every Jean Claude van Damme movie ever made: “they killed my wife and child/brother/father/best friend and I will hunt them down!”  The Harry Potter books incorporate this device (to an extent) with the death of his parents.  Another example that comes to mind is Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, which focuses on a particularly brutal revenge story following the death of the protagonist’s brother.

The hero’s cost, however, need not come in the form of lives lost.  It could be some part of their principles or morals they must abandon in order to achieve their goal, a dream they turn away from in favor of pursuing the villain, or the dreams and principles their friends might sacrifice in order to help them.  The cost could also come in the form of unintended consequences the hero’s actions have on those not directly involved in the central conflict.  Whatever damage you leverage against your hero, the price paid needs to reflect both the mood and message of the story and the protagonist’s character arc.

Just because Dobby’s death got me thinking about costs doesn’t mean I’ve figured out all the answers.  What are your thoughts on striking the right balance between costs and achievements?  What factors go into determining how high a price the protagonist should pay for his/her victory to feel earned?