The second and subsequent readings

You have all confirmed my suspicion that the majority of readers/viewers are deeply worried by spoilerfication.1 We are as one, my comrades! I’ve always been deeply suspicious of those who read the last few pages first. The horror!

For me—and you my comrades—the pleasures of the first read are all about the surprises of the plot, of the characters, of figuring out what kind of a book we’re reading.

One of the pleasures of the second read is figuring out how the writer managed to do what they did.

Or it would be if I didn’t fall instantly back into the story. I am such a sucker for story. Usually, unless I’m very stern with myself, I only start being able to look at how a novel works after a fourth or fifth read.2

It’s a whole other pleasure from the first reading. One that often gives me ideas for my own writing, not to mention teaching me cool and useful techniques. Here’s an example, though, warning: If you haven’t read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond chronicles avert your eyes!

On my second read (or possibly third) I noticed that the main character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, is (almost) never the view point character. It’s kind of embarrassing that I didn’t notice it on my first read—the Chronicles consists of six hefty novels, many gajillion pages. I told you I am a sucker for story! It blinds me to much else.3

I digress.

Dunnett’s keeping us out of Lymond’s head is a large part of how she made him seem so very charismatic. I felt like I knew him because of seeing him from so many other points of views, yet I never knew what was going on in his head except by inference. She makes Lymond mysterious, but not too distant. It’s dead clever. So clever, in fact, I wrote a whole novel using the same technique.4

To grab a few more examples out of thin air: Jane Austen taught me a tonne about dialogue and omniscient pov, Steinbeck about epic sweep and melodrama (yum!), Diana Wynne-Jones about plotting and funny, and Angela Carter made me unafraid of adjectives and adverbs.

I also like to think I learned a tonne about page-turning-ness from my many many re-reads of Flowers in the Attic and the novels of Howard Fast. But I may just be writing tickets on myself.

Of course, learning more about writing is not the only reason I re-read favourite books—there’s also the lovely comfort of falling into a familiar world and story with people I’ve known for an age. Hmmm, now I really want to crack open Game of Kings . . .

Those of you who re-read what do you get out of it?

  1. What do you mean that’s not a significant sample size?! []
  2. With TV shows and movies it also takes many viewings. When I was writing articles about Buffy the Vampire Slayer I watched almost every episode many, many, many times. []
  3. Oh, okay, part of the reason I re-read so often is that I’m a sloppy reader. []
  4. Which, um, hasn’t sold. I’m still proud of it, but. []


  1. lili on #

    i love re-reading. it’s like hanging out with old friends, or wearing your favourite pyjamas. i read diana wynne jones’s fire and hemlock about once a year just so i don’t forget to keep trying and trying to be a whisker as good as she is.

    but it’s also totally useful for actual writing practice. i’ve been rereading books with really strong first-person voices lately, trying to figure out what it is that makes them so memorable. Like curious incident or anything by david almond or ursula dubosarsky.

  2. ebear on #

    I have a heck of a time just reading, anymore. Which makes me sad, but I seem to have lost that ability when I learned how to write.

    Now I read everything critically and slowly and pick it apart, and I miss being able to just read things.

    Most novels are no fun anymore.

  3. kim on #

    i’m reading the grapes of wrath for school. i don’t like it.
    on the other hand, i have over 200 books that i own. i have read each of them a least 10 times. some that are short i have read more.

  4. Kenina-chan on #

    Some people don’t understand why all of my books are beat up. Well, it’s because I read them so often. And then, some people still can’t comprehend why people read books over again. (Or over and over and over and over again.)

    1) The book sucks you in. I can’t put it down even if I’ve read it 17 times or so. People say “Isn’t it boring reading the same thing?” Not at all, there are always things that I’ve forgotten, things I have not noticed, or there is simply the pleasure of marveling at the words that still are as intense, if not more, than the first time.

    2) Sometimes, it doesn’t mean as much the first time. Most of the books I read when I was in middle school that I didn’t like usually turned out to be amazing reads the second time. I can think of three of those books off the top of my head.

    3) I miss the drama, characters, action, passion, everything, in almost every book. It’s like seeing a best friend on a Monday afterternoon when the entire day has been getting worse and worse and then they’re there to help you out. Probably because their story is more tragic than yours, but good books fix broken hearts.

    I love books : )

  5. jessiegirl on #

    i love rereading! i plan it into my reading schedule. I will read the book the first time really fast just so i can know what happens – kind of the way some people read the last page (chapter) i read the whole book. i did hp7 in a day, eclipse twice in a day and other books in just a few hours. then, on the second and possibly third time i can slow down and digest the story and writing. a second reading takes often two or three times longer than the first time through.

    Sometimes i do a good parts read through. Other times i do a reading just for writing. so i can learn from what that author did. this is a ridiculously hard task because i fall into books so easily. Reading outloud helps me stay removed enough to read for the writing and not the story. One time on while reading for writing i noticed a character was wearing a blue sweater. i had read this book for story seriously like 15 times, and i had never noticed this girl had a blue sweater. i felt really dumb.

    i can’t find it right now but there is a line in east of eden by steinbeck about a character who read a book and came up with the words all over his face. it describes me when i read. i just let the world pass by.

  6. Marina on #

    I don’t understand it, because I have an excellent memory for everything else — but when I reread a book it’s almost like reading it for the first time. there just seems to be a gaping hole in my memory bank where the bit for “book plots” is supposed to be. If I’m lucky I may remember the main character’s name and have a vague sense of where the story is going, but most of it is a revelation. Books that I haven’t read for a long time, or that didn’t catch my imagination the first time round, don’t ring any bells at all, just like reading a brand new novel.

    In a way it’s good, because I get that “first-read thrill” every time. But I don’t know why I can remember a million phone numbers, birthdays, trivial facts I heard in passing 20 years ago, and yet novels just evaporate as fast as I read them.

  7. Rebecca on #

    every time i reread ender’s game, i notice something new, and i’ve been rereading it since i was eleven. same with watching serenity or a lot of the other shows and books i like. i don’t reread much, though, b/c there is always a huge stack of unread books awaiting me.

  8. kim on #

    i love to reread. i can read really fast. i read the whole hp series in a week! what ruins rereading ofr me is if i start to forget a book and i reread it, i remember the whole story almost perfectly. but i still like to reread.

  9. sherwood on #

    i love rereading–if a book supports it. some seem “juiced” one or two times through. Austen, though, I learn something new every reread. One time it’s the silences, another time what they don’t tell one another. POV, as you said. Details. POB, same thing.

  10. Harriet on #

    Does anyone else have the experience of re-reading a book in chunks, backwards? What I mean is, you pull a book off the shelf to check a quote, or revisit just one scene, but then get caught up and finish reading through to the end. And then you have to go back to the start and read through to the point you came in? I have done this several times with Jane Austen, and also with Lois McMaster Bujold. Or is this just too wierd, even for other re-readers?

    But I agree with all the other comments about re-reading – it’s like hanging out with old friends, and you often see something new on each read. And sometimes you’ve changed so much since the last time you read it, that it’s almost a completely different book (I had this experience when I re-read Wuthering Heights at 16 – it was totally different from the book I read several times at 14.)

  11. Lissa on #

    i reread for a couple of reasons. first, really, is the familiarity. it’s like visiting old friends. second, there’s often something i overlooked the first (dozen) times or something i didn’t remember that takes me by surprise (especially if i haven’t read it in a while).

    i’ve started rereading (in the past year or two) books that were required reading in high school lo! these many moons ago. Like fahrenheit 451, animal farm, brave new world, and 1984. they are very different books to me, now, because, i suspect, i’ve got more life experience under me belt. i think i’d like to reread some mark twain – i expect i’d get a lot more of the humour and point of view now.

    i also reread some books to recapture specific emotions. like mercedes lackey’s magic’s pawn. ***SPOILERS AHEAD*** i cry every time vanyel confronts his father. or in robin mckinley’s blue sword – i always have a moment of omg!! is she gonna make it over this time??!! when Harry revisits the fort.

  12. ruth on #

    harriet, bujold gets me like that all the time! i’ll feel like checking in with miles (or cordelia)… just to remember how they dealt with that particular problem / issue / approach to life, and come up for breath about a week later having re-read the whole darned lot (from where i started, and then all the bits before, just ’cause).
    i love a writer who can do that to me!

  13. hereandnow on #

    I love spoilers. *bucks the trend*

    (also i’m a big wimp, so reading the last page first is the only way I can get through scary books.)

    I also love re-reading, but I try to limit how much of it I do because otherwise I would never make it out of Diana Wynne Jones’s backlist. and there are only so many times I can re-read fire and hemlock, Howl’s moving castle etc per year without feeling guilty about all the awesome new books I’m missing.

  14. Matt on #

    It’s rare that I re-read anything, largely because I have such a huge pile of ‘Books To Read’ that I’d feel guilty not making a dent in that backlog. Of course, every now and then, I can’t resist. Sometimes I miss the characters, or the world; sometimes it’s non-fiction work that revitalizes me, encourages me (although not ‘Chicken Soup for the soul,’ not that there’s anything wrong with that). And almost inevitably when I revisit a book, there are things I get or pick up on that completely eluded me the first time through. The benefits of age and wisdom, I suppose.

    I remember being in grad school and someone looked at me askance when I told him that, generally, I get too wrapped up in a story to pay attention to what makes it tick. “But you’re a writer. How do you *not* read differently?” I don’t know, I just do. I think I should try your strategy of multiple re-reads; maybe then I can look at all the narrative’s moving parts, see how it all fits together.

  15. tap on #

    I’m with hereandnow (comment #13)—if a book is very good I will read it straight through, but if I start suspecting the ending won’t be worth it, then I’ll skip to the end and see!

    And I often find that the kinds of spoilers you find on, say, Amazon reviews, give me a completely wrong picture of what actually happens, so it doesn’t even spoil the experience of reading for me. (Or maybe I just have a really short-term memory so that I don’t remember to look for the events mentioned when I actually read the book.)

  16. Dess on #

    i was one of those people who couldn’t reread books. i knew everything that happened and i just couldn’t reread it. now, i reread books 7, 8 times each. (okay i’ve only done this to the midnighters, harry potter, and stephenie meyer’s books.)

  17. hillary! on #

    I get a sense of belonging. I know the story and it’s familiar. I love seeing the old characters again, they’re old friends who I can trust to always make me laugh, even if it is the same old joke, and then sometimes I’m already in on the joke, so I can laugh even more. And I’m able to see how everything ties in from a different point of view. I think that’s why I love reading “Howl’s Moving Castle” so much. I notice something different everytime. And I’m so glad I never read any of the reviews and that I waited to watch the movie till after.

  18. Laini Taylor on #

    Ooh — I averted my eyes because I haven’t read the lymond series yet but i (all caps) love (end all caps) dunnett’s niccolo books. love them. i have the first few lymond books but have never gotten past the first fifty pages or so which, if I recall, made me feel stupid for not understanding what was going on. but the niccolo books made me feel that way too at first, so i suppose i should read them again! (or, maybe i am stupid) and, I am the same way — only on multiple rereadings can i penetrate beyond my love of the story to try to figure out how & why a book is so awesome.

  19. Justine on #

    Laini: Try again! Perservere! The Lymond books are so very much worth it! I too am a lover of the Niccolo books.

    Though I confess that I like her standalone The King Hereafter best of all.

  20. Gabrielle on #

    When I was little, I used to read the last sentence of a book before starting it from the beginning. I liked how I didn’t understand it at all at first, and then as I read the story I slowly figured out what it meant. I did that until I did it with one of the Ann of Green Gables sequels and instantly knew the ending. With just the last sentence! I was outraged and never did it again.

    As for rereading… I think the most significant rereading I’ve done is with the Harry Potter books. First I read books 1-5 in French (because I was no good in English yet) then I read 1-5 in English before 6 went out and read the last two in English. Ha! I think that’s the most rereading I’ve ever done. The thing is, there are so many darn good books out there that I haven’t read yet. And I figure, how can I reread books when there’s this shiny, unknown, new exciting book in front of me? Gah.

  21. kim on #

    i want to read the harry potter books in greman. onw of the harry potter books has german in it!!!! :0 i thought that was so cool!!:)

    i was reading the book in german class!;)

  22. mark on #

    I like to reread because I like short books.

    Seriously! I would far rather read one great book three times than one overwritten trilogy. And very often, for my favorite books, I can’t imagine the characters in any contexts other than the ones in the books in which they appear. After a good book, the characters have done what they need to do, and you can be happy that they should be all right after this, or going in the right direction. I have a problem with sequels, too– if you’re really satisfied with where the characters are, how could you ever add anything to it? But if you like the process by which that particular character (or set of characters) figured out his or her (or their) problems, then you just read the same book again.

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