Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Discussion: A Case for Rereading

My English teachers and professors always used to say that if they had all the time in the world to teach their students, they would tell everyone to read the assigned books at least twice before discussing them. I had always kind of generally agreed, but never realized the significance of rereading until the end of last semester, when I reread, for the first time since August, Mockingjay in preparation to write my Hunger Games paper.

Like most other insane Hunger Games fans, I bought a copy of Mockingjay at midnight on August 24, and preceded to spend most of the night and the next day reading it. Okay--I wouldn't call it "reading." More like guzzling, perhaps. I guzzled Mockingjay, swallowed it so fast I practically choked a few times. My eyes devoured the words on the page at such a frantic page they blurred and I got a headache. I closed the book at around 9:30 the next night, feeling like I had run a marathon, and with a large dose of "what the heck just happened?".

I appreciated Mockingjay when I first read it, I guess. I wasn't as angry and disappointed as other readers were, but I had this feeling like I had missed something important in the book. I had, after all, just consumed the book the way a contestant might inhale food in an eating competition. Obviously I can't have remembered details or nuances, only the big, broad strokes--and those had been unexpected and unnerving.

But oh man, when I reread Mockingjay in December, it was like a whole new reading experience. Now that I knew how it ended, I was reading to more closely examine the path that Suzanne Collins took to get us there. I discovered so much that I had missed the first time around, details that led up to the therefore very appropriate conclusion: "that character got what was coming to him/her," or "wow, that character is much more subtly sinister than I realized."

I also noticed the larger themes of the lose-lose situation that is war; the fragility of relationships in the face of decisions that question one's definitions of humanity. There is no black-and-white in war. War twists people so that even those whom we'd consider "good" may do abhorrent acts in the name of their creed.

And the biggest revelation, of course, was that Mockingjay ended exactly the way that it had to. It was a conclusion that had the entire series had been building toward. I finished it for the second time, finally coming to terms with the course that Collins had set for all her characters. I don't think I like it as much as the first book (the pacing! the thrill! the anticipation!), but I like it more than Catching Fire now. It's also definitely a book that I will go back to, again and again.

The point of my Mockingjay anecdote? Rereading gives you the opportunity to notice things you might not have on your first read-through, especially if you were busy poring over the pages, flipping them at screamingly high speeds in anticipation of what's going to happen. Now that you know the big events that await you in the plot, you can focus instead on all the delightful things about the book that you missed: the wit, or the language. For English class, you will notice the symbolism or themes--yes, it took me a reread before I noticed even the painfully obvious symbolism in The Scarlet Letter (which, for the record, I actually like).

I wonder how often or how much my opinion of a YA book I read would change if I read it twice before reviewing. I can think of several books to which rereading was kind. I can also think of a few to which my rereading it would not be so kind. (And that's probably a reason I haven't reread them: I'm scared of how dramatically my opinion of the book might change.)

Some questions that I have, then, after all this thinking about rereading, are:
  • Should a book review be based solely on one's first and/or only readthrough of the book? Can it capture the fullness of the book?
  • What are the benefits to reading a book at least twice before reviewing it? What are the drawbacks?
  • Should I really take the time to reread a book that I disliked, to see if I might like it more after a reread?
  • When someone says that a certain book is their favorite, does that mean that it stands up to rereads, or that it impressed the hell out of the reader the first time through? If your opinion of a book changes with rereads, what then is the definition of a "favorite book"? (This is something I obsess about because, y'know, I like making and updating lists to keep track of the relatively inane things in my life, such as my all-time favorite books ever. This is also something that I've been thinking about recently because I'm in the middle of rereading some old favorites right now and they're just not doing it for me, which makes me sad and also makes me doubt my stability as a reader.)
  • What are the complexities involved in recommending a book that you once loved, but, upon rereading, you no longer liked that much?

The one thing that I know for sure, though? We crazy book people will rarely, if ever, have the time to reread every single book we read. And that makes me a little sad. I have that in common with English teachers. :)


  1. What an excellent topic for thought! I can say that for myself, any book I classify as a favorite stands up to rereading. It's like an old friend. Although, now that I say that, there are a few books I'd classify as favorites that I haven't reread yet, but I believe I would enjoy rereading them (if I had time!). As far as rereading and reviewing, I think that depends on the book and on what your goal is for your review. Is it a dense, complicated book? Then a reread might make for a more thorough review. Is the goal for your review to give general impressions and thoughts, or do you want to be more in-depth or scholarly?
    Those are my two cents, anyway!

  2. I direct your attention here: Great minds, Steph!

  3. You raised a lot of good questions - points that really got me thinking.

    The books that I've reread the most are probably the Harry Potter series. I've read them all at least a couple times, and I have to say, that I end up liking them more each time I read them. I always end up picking out something that I didn't see before that makes me love the world that J K Rowling created.

  4. There are some books I have read more than once because they were that good. Just like you, I found some things in there that I missed the first time. Sort of like watching a movie more than once.

  5. Amanda: some greats cents/sense there! :)

    Zoe: THANK YOU! I absolutely agree with your post about rereading.

    Heather: Harry Potter is one of those special books that I would love to reread, for the same reasons you do. I need to reread those soon!

    Melina: Yes, definitely like rewatching movies. Though I wonder if there is a limit to how often you can reread/rewatch something before you get sick of it...

  6. I reread many of my favorite books, often every year. I also often reread books that I disliked or struggled with (Beloved, The Scarlet Letter, etc.) and come up with different opinions afterwards. I do plan on rereading Mockingjay and I hope my opinion will change because I was really annoyed with the pacing, plot, and ending of the book.

  7. I actually read MOCKINGJAY twice in the same day. (I do that with books I have been anticipating--I've read every HP book twice on release day: once to INHALE WHAT HAPPENS, the second to process.)

    On my reread of MOCKINGJAY, I found myself more disappointed than I was in my initial read. More specifically, I felt a little let down by Katniss, who I felt didn't have to make any hard choices. All of her choices were made for her (including the all-consuming Gale vs. Peeta question: Gale essentially tells her what her decision is).

    Is it realistic? Sure. But doesn't it make for convincing character growth? No.

    I tend to read books at least twice before I review them, but then again, I hardly review books anymore. If I didn't like a book enough to reread it, then I probably won't review it with a simple "eh, not for me".

    Interesting discussion though!

  8. As a teacher, I am a chronic re-reader. I get to re-read books every single year. And, I've been teaching for 8 years + summer school. Lots of reading and re-reading.

    There are books that I relish re-reading every year. Of Mice and Men, The Hunger Games, The Book Thief, I Had Seen Castles, Hamlet. These are very different books, but they all have one thing in common: They get better and better every time I read them. And, I'm not a teacher who's tied to tradition or sentimentality. If a book isn't worth reading and re-reading, it isn't really worth teaching.

    Thanks for highlighting this idea. I think book blogging pushes us to seek new and unreleased books rather than re-enjoy and rediscover those books that moved us once upon a time.

    Maybe we should host a re-reading challenge next year? That would be cool.

  9. I reread books some times, some of my favorite books I've read more than three or four times. I think that two times is perfect for reading books you like, you notice lots of details just as you said in your post. But I feel that I enjoy reading a book less if I read it more than two times. Because then I know everything that's going to happen, I can quote lots of scenes and don't get as emotional as the first two times I read it. Imagine a roller coaster (if you like them, hehe), the first times you ride it you're very excited and the ride is really scary and awesome. But when you've ridden it a few times, it's not as scary as before. It's fun, but not really exciting. That's how I feel at least :)

  10. My first year in college, a girl on my hall was surprised to find I reread books. I was shocked that most people didn't! I love returning to books, even just certain chapters or passages. I haven't reread Mockingjay yet, though; might be worth a look. (Granted, I found it very satisfying the first time around, so I'm curious to see all the details I missed.)

  11. J.: I'm impressed that you often reread books you disliked, so as to see if your opinion will change. That takes dedication!

    JJ: Thanks for explaining your thoughts on Mockingjay. If you reread the book and still feel that way, well, I think that's a good reason to feel that way about Mockingjay. I like that you gave it a reread, though!

    Mrs. DeRaps: "I think book blogging pushes us to seek new and unreleased books rather than re-enjoy and rediscover those books that moved us once upon a time." You hit the nail on the head there. I often wonder/worry about how blogging has changed my reading habits, and a decrease in rereading is one of them. I think that's what I would like about being a teacher, the grounds to reread many many books. Have you ever encountered books that didn't improve upon rereading, though?

    Olivia: Interesting that you say you enjoy a book less if you read it more than twice! It is possible to get sick of something you experience too often, I think. I wonder if leaving some time between rereads might lower the decrease in enjoyment...? Lots to think about here!

    Annie: Crazy that some people are shocked at those who reread books, isn't it? I've met a few of those myself, and always couldn't understand how they managed to part with even books that they loved, with no intention of rereading them.

  12. Great discussion! Reading a book twice before reviewing seems like it would take forever... and there are so many books to read!

    I only re-read my favorite books ever. I haven't re-read a book I didn't like yet. Maybe I should do that. But I did rewatch a show I used to love when I was little... Clarissa Explains it All. I thought it was the bomb until I watched it again and I was like, omg this show is TERRIBLE. Some joys should stay in the past, lol. (however, I have re-read BSC books and they are still the cheesy amazing books I loved)

    great post

  13. If I know I'm going to write a review, then I try to take my time and read a bit more slowly or I'll wait a week or so before writing the review just to let the book "sink in."

    But while most of my favorite books stand up to rereads, a few haven't. Some books I "guzzled" (to borrow your phrase) and then later, when I went back, I found them much less enjoyable.

  14. If it's been dubbed one of my favorites, it absolutely stands up to rereads. Rereading is akin to breathing for me and, well, the Oscar Wilde quote really does say it best, IMO. And that is one of the main reasons I adore reviews of older books or old faves. So much perspective and thought and experience has been brought by that reader to that book. *love*

  15. I just can't re-read books. It makes me feel guilty because there are so many books I want to read that I haven't read once yet.
    Though I will make an exception at some point and read every HP. I guess that makes the series my absolute favorite?

  16. Thank you so much for the food for thought. I have always been against rereading a book-because there are so mny great books out there I believe should be read. But I honestly have never looked at it from that perspective. Thank you for opening my eyes.

  17. I really wish my students had time to read things twice. I wish I had the time! Re-reading offers so much pleasure; you are familiar with the story so you can focus on the nuances. I re-read books from time to time, and I love it, but I don't have as much time to re-read as I would like. There are just so many books I want to read!

  18. I definitely think The Hunger Games series rewards rereading. I did it immediately after reading Mockingjay though because I had this big huge hole in me that needed more THG!

    In fact, it was Mockingjay that revealed to me that I needed to rethink my previous anti-rereading position. Thrilled to see it has that same power for others. :)

    I think some books reward rereading more than others.

  19. I think it's OK to post reflections on a book after only reading it once. First impressions are sometimes lasting impressions! I do think there are many books you can get additional things out of if you read them again -- not every book, though. I'm always affected by the mood I'm in when reading a book - and I'm sure that changes my impressions, too. So, I may think differently when I read a book at a different time. I'm all for re-reading. It's not my passion, but there are books that I want to read again (I'm very selective, though.)

  20. What a wonderful post, it made me think :) I almost never reread books but I have a few ones that I've saved on my shelves with that in mind.

    I don't think it is necessary for you to question your stability as a reader though. People change through the years and for the same reason I think our opinions about the books we love sometimes does as well.

    I have to say that I'm not sure I would love Mockingjay any more if I read it again. I was just so disappointed in the focus in the story not particular the ending itself that was ok.

  21. Well, of course it would be impossible to reread every book as a reviewer, but I love to reread favorites. And I think that your opinion of a book might change because you, as a person, are always changing. For example, I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond in sixth grade and hated it. But when I reread it again in tenth grade, I loved it. I just think that I wasn't ready for it or didn't get it because I was only 11. So you shouldn't be upset if you find a book that you loved as a child not as good as you thought, or vice versa.

    And I think you might get more out rereading deep or "classic" books rather than, say, your favorite rom-com. Books full of great themes and symbols benefit from a reread so you can really take everything in.

    Great post!

  22. I am a big rereader, so . . .

    •Should a book review be based solely on one's first and/or only readthrough of the book? Can it capture the fullness of the book?

    In order to review a book in a timely fashion, I base the review on a single read. However, I mark important points as I read and reread anything I bookmarked as I write the review. Sometimes my feeling about those passages are affected by knowledge of the end.

    Personally, I don't worry about not capturing the "fullness." I love rereading to discover deeper levels and little details I missed in books I loved. If I didn't like the book, then I'm not going to give it a second chance to annoy me. "Will I reread this?" is a factor in my reviews. Books that I will reread tend to get better reviews even if they have glaring faults.

    •What are the benefits to reading a book at least twice before reviewing it? What are the drawbacks?

    Drawbacks: Time. Benefits: Being more comfotable about the book, having more to write about . . .

    For instance, my review of THE DEMON'S LEXICON would be much more positive now. The first time felt competent but somewhat blah. Then I got a burning itch to reread it. It was awesome. It worked far better knowing the reveal.

    •Should I really take the time to reread a book that I disliked, to see if I might like it more after a reread?

    No. In fact, I now try not to even finish books I don't like.

    •When someone says that a certain book is their favorite, does that mean that it stands up to rereads, or that it impressed the hell out of the reader the first time through? If your opinion of a book changes with rereads, what then is the definition of a "favorite book"? (This is something I obsess about because, y'know, I like making and updating lists to keep track of the relatively inane things in my life, such as my all-time favorite books ever. This is also something that I've been thinking about recently because I'm in the middle of rereading some old favorites right now and they're just not doing it for me, which makes me sad and also makes me doubt my stability as a reader.)

    Any of my favorites have held up to about fifty rereads. I'm on my second copy of several favorites because I've torn them up.

    I would proposition Nathaniel Hawthorne if he were still alive. Every time I read THE SCARLET LETTER his use of language makes me love him more. No other author does that to me.

    •What are the complexities involved in recommending a book that you once loved, but, upon rereading, you no longer liked that much?

    Generally I avoid books I once loved but no I will no longer appreciate. I might recommend them to someone in the same place I was when I read the book (younger, usually), but I wouldn't give it a general rec.

    I should admit, on further thought, that I do usually reread books with big reveals at the end before reviewing them. I think a well-done reveal (such as THE THIEF by Megan Whalen Turner) works even better if you know what's coming. If the book is boring once you know the big twist, then it doesn't have as much going for it.

  23. Mockingjay is definitely on my to-re-read list, though I find with series I always feel compelled to start over at the beginning -- so really, the whole trilogy is on my to-re-read list!

    There are at least a handful of books I include on my favorites list that I've only read once, as well as several books I've read dozens of times that I wouldn't call my favorites. The same goes for movies -- for example, The Shawshank Redemption is without a doubt one of my favorite movies in the world, but an easy re-watcher it is not. Then there's something like How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, which is brain candy -- endlessly re-watchable, but certainly not something I'd put at the top of my cinematic masterpiece list!

    It's a very interesting thing to ponder -- the value we place in re-experiencing something, and why. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  24. I completely agree, thought I think that if you read the book that's not in a beloved series, its easier to remain partial.

    Another thing, is sometimes the books are not as good on the re-read because you may have read other books with similar topics that where just done better.

  25. You know, I was just thinking to myself something similar. Yesterday, I reread one of my all time favorite novels, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, and I noticed that not much changed in my reaction to it, if anything I loved it more. Thinking about it now, I have to wonder about all the novels I've claimed are my favorites. Are they really my favorite reads or did I just feel that way initially? (Gosh, you can really obsess over things like this!) I guess, the true definition of a most loved read would be if you come back to it after several months/years and can read it again, closing the novel with the same sense of feelings you had the first time around.

    Seriously, this was one of those food for thought kind of things. A maddening puzzle, as I'm still thinking about it. But I loved your post today! Absolutely well-written and makes excellent points!

    Thanks for sharing! Happy reading, Steph!

    Asher K. (Paranormal Indulgence)

  26. A fascinating post (and some great comments). As a kid, rereading was my life. I had favorites I read again and again. As an adult, this is rarely the case and, now that you mention it, that is a bit sad. As Mrs. DeRapps points out, the current blogger culture does press forward toward the new, making rereading a big challenge. As to the larger question of whether "rereadability" makes a book great or classic, I think certain books speak to me at certain moments in my life, while others see me through a longer haul. I am glad to have both sorts of titles on my shelves.

  27. I love this post! I have to agree with you that because there are so many good books out there, we don't have enough time to reread books. A book becomes a favorite for me when I'm so impressed the first time that I read it that I know I'm going to read it again sometime in the future. This is why I'd want to keep a copy for myself.

    It's so hard to choose favorites! I keep updating my own list and sometimes I remove ones that don't stand up to rereads. On the other hand, I've reread books that I don't even remember reading the first time around and I've ended up liking them a lot more. I think the way we feel about books change as we grow older and experience more things. I remember Shannon Hale had a few discussions on her blog about how the author only does half of the work when he/she finishes a book, the other half is up to the reader because we all have different ways of understanding the book. How we feel about a book changes because we also change, the book stays the same.

  28. Hi Steph!

    I'm just crashing in the discussion because I felt that this is a topic that is close to my heart when I reread of The Hobbit at the start of the year. Anyway here are my thoughts about it:

    Thanks! :)

  29. That's the general standard I was taught when editing and critiquing. You read the manuscript once to get a feel for the work and then read it again to better be able to dive right into it. I don't see why it would be any different for reviewing. It's just a matter of finding the time to actually re-read all those books.

  30. It's funny because I'm in the middle of moving and I have to pare down some of my books (basically I don't have enough room and I still want my friends to like me afterwards) and this is a big part of the criteria I've been using to evaluate what I keep. Would the book stand up to rereading?

    Favorites are usually things that I know will stand up to rereading. Although I tend to not keep track of favorites cause I have too many to list.

    As far as rereading things before reviewining (I'm answering your questions all out of order, sorry) I think you have to decide if that's really the best use of your time. Same goes for rereading books you didn't like. I had to train myself to stop reading books that I was really disliking b/c with all the other things I want to read, it's not a productive use of my time.

    If you change your mind about a book your recommended (I assume you mean on your blog) that you can do a new post that you reread it, it didn't stand up rereading and why you felt that way.

  31. I love love love re-reading. I think if you haven't read Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie yet, you need to read it because there is a fabulous quote in it that sums up why re-reading is awesome.

    I mean, I love coming back to my old friends from time to time.

  32. I LOVE the fact that you posted this. I too re-read Mockingjay and felt it only confirmed what I had initially felt during the first read. I agree that the ending is perfect and the only possible conclusion to the story. There is so much more insidious behavior that becomes apparent in a re-read as well.

    Re-reads are an amazing way to re-discover a an old favorite.

  33. You're always nailing it because you are always stretching it. Great piece.

  34. I don't re-read because I have a huge to be read pile and I just get more enjoyment out of reading a new story than rereading a book I've already read, even if it was a favorite. As a child I used to re-read but that was more because I had run out of books to read as I was a picky reader and only read like one genre at that time.

  35. I wrote a post about rereads a couple of weeks ago and I talked about how some books I've named as favorites are those that I've reread and liked. That's why I was kind of wary to name new ones that I've liked as favorites because I'm not sure if I would really like it the second time around.

    I think reviewing a book on the first read is okay, since that's what people would look for before getting that book. A reread would maybe enforce or change opinions, but I think the first read is good enough.

    Chachic mentioned it well in my post, how our experiences change the way we like books. Some books may be close to our heart at one point, but may turn out to be not so close after some time because of some things we go through. It doesn't mean the book is less good, but that we just changed. :)

    If I had a luxury of time, I'd read all the books I read twice, because as you said, you notice different things on the next read. I remember reading Catching Fire for the second time and remembering all the reasons why that was my favorite. :)

  36. Hi, Steph. I'm here via the link from Abby the Librarian, and I have to chime in your already long list of comments just because I have had such similar thoughts on some of this!

    I wish I could reread more! I have two toddlers and a part-time job on top of them, and I read so many reviews that my to-be-read list is miles long, so when I DO get time to read, I'm more than likely going to be reading something new. But I LOVE rereading, and there are so many of my favorites that I'd like to come back to-- if I get a moment.

    But yes, I feel reluctant to label a book a favorite until I've reread it, too. I now have a list of "potential favorites" that I have to reread before I can tell for sure! I've been messing with making an Official List of My Favorite Books recently, and whether I have reread it or not is a big factor.

    I think if you're doing a proper review, and especially a professional review, then a reread may be necessary. But I tend to do more recommendations than reviews-- "I enjoyed this! You may enjoy it too! Here's why!" which doesn't require a reread, because it's more about the EXPERIENCE of reading the book rather than the actual literary worth of the book itself.

    Thanks for writing about this subject dear to my heart!

  37. I used to re-read ALL the time as a kid/teen! I read Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books every summer, and the Chronicles of Narnia probably just as often. L.M. Montgomery and Elizabeth Enright were also frequent re-reads for me. I still re-read the Betsy-Tacy books to this day, but I don't have as much time to re-read anymore, to be honest. I'm always trying to keep up with the latest and greatest, so I can make good, current recommendations to my library teens. I do love revisiting old favorites when I get a chance, though! It's like seeing an old friend.

    Oh, and I did read Mockingjay twice, just to process it. I liked the first time, and like it even better the second time around!

  38. I had the same experience when re-reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, except it wasn't my first re-read, it was something like my fourth. The reason the experience changed is because I was reading it chapter-by-chapter with Mark Reads, and rather than being annoyed by all the CAPSLOCK!HARRY and thinking the book was too long, I really saw how every chapter added something essential to the book, and how they each built up to the climax. I was way more impressed with JKR's writing skillz after that re-read. I definitely think there's something to be said for taking a re-read slowly, savoring each page.

  39. I have never heard this before but it makes perfect sense! I do have one small problem with this concept, though: a little thing called 'time'

  40. I'm definitely a huge fan of re-reading. I am probably slightly more likely to pick up an old favourite than a new book.

    I thought this was definitely a thought-provoking post. Thanks for sharing!

    Any chance we'll get to read the Hunger Games paper? I'd love to take a look...


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