Going Back for the First Time

Maybe I’ve mentioned this before on the blog. I can’t remember. I know I’ve gotten my fair share of horrified reactions when I’ve admitted this on Twitter, though.

I’ve never read a book a second time.

Not ever. Not once. I’ve never – not even a single time – gone back through a book cover to cover after I’ve finished it. I’ve gone back through sections, but never completely. Never a full, honest-to-God re-read.

Why? Well there are so many new things to read, right? So many books I should have read but haven’t. The to-read pile is endless, and I already struggle to find as much time to read as I’d like. How can I justify burning precious time on things I’ve already finished? I’ve simply never felt compelled to go back to go back to a book, no matter how much I loved it.

I didn’t think of this as strange until I mentioned it a few months ago. The near-unanimous shock surprised me. Not only do most of my bookish friends read novels multiple times, they do it regularly. Annually, for some books. I was a freak, it seemed. A three-eyed fish.

Am I missing something?, I wondered. Maybe I was denying myself a special joy in my relentless march through the stacks of the unread. Maybe I should give it a try. So, last night I started my first ever cover-to-cover re-read of a favorite book.

As a reader, I’m still more interested in pushing forward than I am in looping back. I have Sherlock Holmes to read, and Hemingway, and Márquez. I want to explore new territory, not revisit familiar haunts. It’s not reader-Eric that decided to do this. It’s writer-Eric, who realized his first time through a book was too emotionally distracting to teach him the details. How did an author use dialogue? Punctuation? Sentence structure? I know how a novel made me feel, but not how it made me feel it. It’s one thing to deny myself the pleasure of a second read. It’s another to be lazy when there’s something to learn.

The question of what to read was easy. I have a lot of influences, but two stand out from the crowd: Guy Gavriel Kay, and Neil Gaiman. Alas, my copy of American Gods is still in a box somewhere. That meant I’d be returning to Kay. Kay’s work wrecked my view of what fantasy could be. His brilliant use of what should have been insufferable fantasy cliches in The Fionavar Tapestry proved that how you use something is far more important than what you use. The Lions of al-Rassan did something else: it showed me a style of fantasy I simply did not know existed. It was a quiet, focused on art and culture instead of battles and monsters. It was tragic and romantic, and it made fantasy new for me just when I was slipping away from the genre.

Since I’m incapable of taking the easy road, I chose Kay’s duology, The Sarantine Mosiac. Why read one book a second time when I can read two, right? Though I love The Lions of al-Rassan, The Sarantine Mosiac’s Constantinople-inspired setting is what lured me back. This was the series that made me obsessed with Byzantium and mosaic art. It, like Fellini’s 8 1/2, was one of the few stories about an artist that felt true. If I was going to re-read a book as a writer, there was no better choice.

I’ll let you know how it went, and what I got out of it, once I’m done. I’m glad I’m finally doing this, even if it turns out to feel more like work than reading usually is. Work is ok. I can’t be lazy every day. I don’t want to take the joy of sloth for granted, after all.

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6 Responses to Going Back for the First Time

  1. Mere says:

    Of all the books you weighed for re-reading, which do you recommend for a first read? Of course, I’m only asking so I can pretend to take your advice seriously.

  2. Eric says:

    This question always kills me, because the book of his I read first (Tigana – which, you’ll note, is not on the list) is never my recommendation. Plus, there’s such a style variation between my favorites, it ends up being a matter of who the reader is.

    For you, I’d say it’s The Lions of al-Rassan, because you love historical things, and you love Gaiman, and I think you’d key into the cultural and religious themes at play.

    For someone who likes Big Fantasy a little more, it would be The Fionavar Tapestry, because it has balls of steel in its fearless use of every fantasy cliche ever, which it somehow makes work to the point where I got near to crying in every single book of the trilogy. But you have to be willing to ride out some serious epic fantasy cliches until it starts really clicking, which put even me off for a little bit.

  3. samatwitch says:

    For some reason I’ve never read any of his books, but I’ll have to give him a try.

    I am a great re-reader. Yes, I have a lot of books in my to-read pile – physically and even more on my Goodreads list – but there are some books I go back to over and over – some from my childhood I’ve read more than a dozen times and my favourites probably at least 10 times each. As a matter of fact, that’s how I cull my books – if I haven’t re-read it, can’t remember the storyline and am not interested in re-reading it, then it can go to a new home. :) I have even re-read many of Agatha Christie’s mysteries. (I also rewatch moview – for instance, I’ve seen “Serenity” 18 times in theatres – not including CSTS viewings. :D )

  4. Brennen says:

    It’s not an easy question, but I’ll second Eric re: which Kay book to start with. I usually give Lions to people who have less of a history with cheeseball hypercliched Fantasy.

    I think I’ve probably spent about a third of my time as a reader doing a re-read of something or another. This could be because I have a fantastically poor memory for details. A couple of weeks after I’ve read a novel, I’m usually left with a vague atmospheric impression and a sense of whether I liked the characters or not.

  5. Carissa says:

    I read The Stand twice. Bag of Bones. I think I read The Outsiders many, many times as a kid. Reread House of Stairs by William Sleator, a great kids book, as an adult because it left such a lasting impression. Really, too many to mention. To me, rereading books is like revisiting a favorite movie.

    Hope you find that to be the case, as well!!

  6. jackj says:

    Dude… dude… there is no way you’re reading quality literature if you’re only doing a once-through. If you stick to genre fiction then I guess the plot is the only critical thing, but don’t do that to Hemingway and that ilk. You have to read it more than once to catch the subtleties that an intelligent person spent hundreds of hours weaving into a novel (which is more than its plot). Do yourself a favor: skip the genre fiction and dive into something more complex. Tolstoy can teach you way more about how to write effectively than can Gaiman. It’s not even close. Read a little and you’ll understand.

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