On Reading a Book Twice

Reading a book twice can seem like an unaffordable luxury given all the books out there waiting to be read. But it’s helpful in seeing the big picture – the forest for the trees.

Lately I’ve had the opportunity to read several books twice.

As I prepared for my interview with Barbara Kingsolver, I re-read all of her novels, though there were two I hadn’t read previously: The Lacuna and The Poisonwood Bible. I hadn’t read her early books since my undergraduate days, and it had been a few years since I read her latest book, Flight Behaviour. So reading them again was in a sense like reading them for the first time. Reading them one after the other, however, also gave me insight into Kingsolver’s writing process – the fact that she writes heavily researched books interspersed with less-researched books, and the themes she returns to in each book. I was able to put together a series of interview questions that built on this re-reading.

More recently, I re-read several books for an essay about post-apocalyptic fiction. In this case, I’d read these books much more recently, so the re-reading process was completely different. These included Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus, Eric Barnes’ The City Where We Once Lived, and Peter Hellers’ The Dog Stars. The only one I hadn’t read in ages was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which seemed both bleaker and terser than I’d remembered.

I found myself noting details and connections I’d missed the first time around. I was particularly pleased with Station Eleven, as some of the many interconnections between  characters are easy to miss the first time around. Thus the second time around I found it richer and more vibrant.

I also found it easier to detach from each book to some extent and think about the big picture, like how each book related to other books or movies I’d read/seen. Gold Fame Citrus, for example, reminds me of the movie Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s ultimately about a cult of personality run by a polygamous “prophet” who hands out drugs to keep people pliable while pretending he’s mysteriously finding water when in actual fact he’s raiding Red Cross caravans.

I was actually disappointed by The Dog Stars the second time around, as I found the premise of the main character finding a (sort of ) healthy female partner to be a bit too neat. And in The City Where We Once Lived, I realized what had actually happened to the main character in the past – something I hadn’t quite grasped the first time around, and which is critical to the story.

Other books I regularly re-read include JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, JK Rowlings’ Harry Potter series, and CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. I have the complete Lord of the Rings in a single fat book with small writing that I took to the Arctic several years in a row, and that I re-read at least once a year. There is something soothing in picking up a story and knowing how it’s going to end, travelling along with the characters regardless of your state of mind. In fact, that state of mind means you’re a different person each time you pick up a book – you know more and have had more experiences. This makes the reading experience different each time – something new resonates with me upon each re-reading.

I also re-read non-fiction books, especially writing books like Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing (re-reading right now) and Carol Shields’ Startle & Illuminate (next up on the re-reading list). I’ve also read Annie Dillard’s The Abundance several times. I find new nuggets each time through.

So don’t feel bad about re-reading a well-loved book, or even re-reading a recently read book to wring as much as you can from it. You’re certain to see it in a different light.

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3 thoughts on “On Reading a Book Twice

  1. Hi Sarah … I’ll have to try station 11 again myself . Still only began a few pages into Lacuna because my wife and I are in Alberta visiting my wifes daughter and our grand children. I love the winter months because with less gardening it leaves me more time for reading. Cheers – Bruce

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