On Rereading Books

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The rereading of books you already know is a much discussed subject among booklovers. On the one hand, it is great to revisit favourites; it can grant comfort and familiarity. Then again, how will you ever get through those TBR-lists if you keep reading the same books over and over? So many books, so little time…!

Then there’s the confrontational experience I had recently, when I read a book by one of my favourite childhood authors, Christopher Paolini. His sci-fi masterpiece has come out now, by the way. I do intend to read it someday, but ah, we’ll see when I’ll cross that bridge.

All the books you haven’t read

Accidentally, while we’re on the subject, I can actually talk about a book I’ve been ‘reading’ for quite some time. By that, I mean that I’ve started it, put it down one day and didn’t finish it. Now it gathers dust on my nightstand. It’s tragic, but also ironic! Wanna know why?

Because it’s called ‘How to talk about books you haven’t read’, by literary professor and psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard.


But seriously, it is a very interesting read, if a bit of a stiff one. There’s a lot of theory and categorizing going on, so it isn’t something you pick up before bed to lull yourself to sleep or anything. It requires some focus, and I haven’t been in the mood to finish it. Maybe this blog will push me over the edge!

I will now talk about the book that talks about talking about books you haven’t read, which I haven’t read.


The main point of Bayards book is to take away people’s fear and anxiety for not having read all of canonical literature, which I think is really nice of him. There are way too many books in existence for that. If you’re required to have read most of the western canon to be ‘allowed’ to critically speak about books, then we’d only get to current literature in our twilight years, if we’d get there at all.

When you read something, only a fraction of it remains in your repertoire, or ‘inner library’. Almost as soon as you turn the page, Bayard claims, most of it is gone, and what remains of your experience of the book turns into an ‘inner book’: your personal experience of the book. This way, while everyone reads the same text, they still all create different inner books, based on their individual experience and interpretation.

I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so…

Oscar Wilde

Insert memory card here

Reading, then, is an act of continuous remembering. We recall past reading in order to understand what we’re reading in the present, as we refer it to what we already know. Like that game where you whisper a sentence around which slowly turns into something else, our own memories change as we remember and alter them according to the new pages we read. As we update our memory, it keeps changing, factoring in also the circumstances in which we read the book and what is going on in our own life at the moment. As time passes, our memory of the book gets compressed and distilled into basically an experience and a plotline, maybe some characters… Though this varies per person, of course.

Along this reasoning, reading a text a second time might very easily lead to a new ‘inner book’, since your current mindset and context are a huge influence on your experience. So reading books twice can be just as valuable as reading a new one. Then again, Bayard claims that you don’t need to actually read a whole book to have an opinion about it, or to discuss it. Just flicking through it can be enough to to serve as food for thought. Reading other people’s opinions or summaries can also create your own inner book, thus skipping the reading part entirely.

Purists will scoff at this idea, undoubtedly. But hey man, life is too short. And books are too long; especially if you have to read all of them.

Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s night a Traveller contains an amazing passage in which the main character wanders through a bookstore, and categorically observes all the books they still want to read but probably never will. It’s really striking, look it up here.

So, should you read books multiple times?

Honestly, who am I to tell you what to do? Some books will bring you something new every time you read them, since you yourself change as you grow older, as do your perspectives. Others will turn out not to be as solid as you remember. This is the case especially if there’s only the plot to propel it forward. It might be a bit rough to hear, but plot is only a fraction of what keeps a story going, and what makes it memorable.

Some books, like those which rely heavily on storytelling, themes and motives, might even benefit from being read multiple times. A lot of literature has a similar thing going on. Once you know which things happen when, the plot doesn’t ‘distract’ from the rest of the text anymore, if that makes any sense.

Many people who never reread books, argue that they don’t because they already know what is going to  happen. Rereading, then, is done for two reasons, if you distil them.

  1. Nostalgia; the same reason some people watch Home Alone every year during Christmas time… I guess everyone has their own traditions in this regard.
  2. Depth! Each time a rich story is reread, new things might catch your attention. When I was a kid, I read books super fast, sometimes skimming over entire pages in order to find out what happened next. Undoubtedly a reasonable part of those books did not get the attention they might’ve deserved. Even a very alert reader will miss elements of what they read, either due to their focus being drawn away from details or, well, the restrictions of the human mind.

               Another bonus reason is one I like a lot myself, and is the direct opposite to the ‘I already know what happens’ argument. It can be hugely satisfying to experience a story of which you already know the ending, because you can see it all coming together. Every well written story should have some little signs of foreshadowing in a character’s behaviour of the description of an environment for example, which signals development later on. Especially when it comes to stories with a huge plot twist, experiencing it whilst being ‘in on it’ can be very gratifying.

Just imagine watching your favourite film with a friend who hasn’t seen it before, and turning to watch their face instead of the screen in order to see their reaction. It’s a bit like that.

…Except I guess you’re looking at your own face?

Maybe that’s not such a good example after all.

So I guess it’s up to you, as always. I enjoy rereading books sometimes, but it’s always a gamble whether it is going to be worth it or not. Then again, the same goes for reading ‘new’ books.

So yeah.

Do what you do!
Read what you like.
You read for you, and nobody else.
Remember that.