Read It Again!

Thus goes up the cry from many a small child, with their insatiable desire for the same bedtime story to be told, over and over (and over) again.

Felix Schlesinger Die Gute-Nacht-Geschichte

But it’s not just little kiddies who do it. Scratch a reader and you will find a re-reader – but what is it we’re re-reading? And why?

The winner of the gold medal, blue ribbon and all-around first prize for re-reading (re-readiness?) is the Scriptures; unsurprising given the emphasis so many traditions put on reading, re-reading, memorizing and internalizing the words of God. As Jesus said, these are “foundational words, words to build a life on.” But, leaving the Scriptures aside, as the best-seller lists do (since the same book invariably tops the list), what are the most popular re-reads?

The comments on this post reminded me of the widespread passion for re-reading The Lord of the Rings – and not just re-reading it, but re-reading it again every year. That’s dedication, especially if you aren’t a fast reader.

Some people re-read other classic novels such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, although I have yet to hear of anyone who repeatedly reads War and Peace – apart from Countess Tolstoy, who apparently recopied and edited it seven times. That’s going above and beyond the call of duty, it seems to me. Bearing thirteen children is one thing; reading War and Peace seven times is quite another.

woman writing at desk

Many people obsessively re-read C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia as children, and some continue the habit. I myself, as a child, re-read pretty much everything I could get my hands on, as I was a voracious reader with limited (re)sources. I even read our children’s encyclopaedia by the volume (Vol. 1, Article 1: Abbey, which may be connected to my subsequent interest in all things monastic).

More recently, I have noticed a pattern to my re-reading. When I am tired and want to relax, I read either an old favourite – Agatha Christie, Patricia Wentworth, Ngaio Marsh, Ellis Peters – or a book by an author with whom I am sufficiently familiar to be sure I will enjoy the book. And yes, this means that when I want to relax I almost without exception curl up with a mystery (although I did curl up with The Curse of Chalion the other day).

When I am not in need of book-induced relaxation – when I have more mental energy – I tend more toward the reading of non-fiction. Books about writing, books about whatever I have an interest in at the moment, books which happened to show up in an old box from someone’s grandmother. Reading entirely unfamiliar fiction doesn’t happen as often, unless the book is very compelling when I glance into it, because it doesn’t fit into either of my two settings: Relax or Absorb Information.

Simon Glücklich Hausaufgabe

But once I’ve read a non-fiction book, I seldom feel the inclination to re-read it, and I think this reveals something about why people re-read – or at least why I re-read. I re-read books because there is something in them which I cannot fully obtain from one reading. If it’s non-fiction, it’s because I didn’t absorb enough of the information it contained the first time round.

With fiction, that doesn’t apply. I mean, look at the enormous popularity of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels. Read one, you’ve got a pretty good idea of them all, but that doesn’t stop people reading the rest and then re-reading them. Because the essence of the book isn’t in the facts of it, it’s in something altogether more evanescent. The style of the book, or perhaps its soul. You can’t break that down to its component parts to analyze why it works. The letter kills, but the spirit gives life, you could say.

Or, to steal a structure from Maya Angelou, people will forget what the book said, they’ll forget what the characters did, but they will never forget how the book made them feel. And that, I am convinced, is the secret of all re-reading. Reading the book produced in us a feeling – and with great books it’s a feeling no other book creates – and re-reading the book is the only way to feel that again. This is how reading prescriptions work; and also why we have fan-fiction.

What do you think? What books do you re-read, and why?

Am I An Addict? In Which I Try Some Amateur Psychological Self-Diagnosis

I asked you all the other day whether you are (or have been) an addict – but it can be hard to tell. I didn’t find out I was addicted to tea until I had to give it up temporarily for health reasons (the tannin in tea lowers the absorption of iron) and found that hot water was not an adequate replacement. I went cold turkey, and these days I can get along just fine without tea if life happens that way – providing I drink a sufficient quantity of other liquids.

Female drinking tea

So how do you tell? Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, a.k.a. the Yarn Harlot did the sensible thing when accused of being a knitting addict and consulted the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fourth edition) a.k.a. DSM-IV.

“I flip through the pages looking for addiction, substance abuse, dependency, all the keywords. I find out that “substance dependence” (which seems about right for someone who wigged when she couldn’t get her yarn) is defined as an individual showing any three or more specific criteria within a year.”

Knitting Perfection

While I have been known to knit obsessively under stress (I knit so I don’t stab people – it’s too hard to get blood out of the yarn), I don’t think I’m addicted to knitting. But I have a sneaking feeling that I may be addicted to reading. It’s how I relax, especially when times are rough. (Escapism?)

Feel free to substitute your own substance of preference and tally along.
Here are the criteria:

(1) Tolerance, as defined by either of the following: (a) A need for markedly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or desired effect. (b) Markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance.

Not guilty, m’lud. Reading is reading, and the effect is constant and unvariable, providing the material is of sufficient quality.

(2) Withdrawal, as defined by either of the following: (a) The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the substance. (b) The same (or a closely related) substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Pieter Huys - Woman Enraged

Well, I don’t know what “the characteristic withdrawal syndrome” is for reading, but the one time I abstained from reading the difference was *cough* noticeable. Strike One: I

(3) The substance is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.

Yes, yes, all right! Books do not come with clocks attached. Possibly this is part of their appeal. Strike Two: II

(4) There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control substance use.

Ha! That’ll be the day.

(5) A great deal of time is spent in activities to obtain the substance (e.g. visiting multiple doctors or driving long distances), use the substance (e.g. chain smoking), or recover from its effects.

Carl Spitzweg 021

Reading doesn’t really have the sort of effects you need to recover from, but I will admit to a weekly library visit, and a fairish amount of time spent reading (obviously; otherwise the library visit would be wasted time).

(6) Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of substance use.

Define “important”. I don’t get out much, it is true, but I don’t think I’d get out much more if there were no books. (Hideous thought.) As far as occupational activities go, reading is mandatory for writers. So there.

(7) The substance use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to been caused or exacerbated by the substance (e.g. current cocaine use despite recognition of cocaine-induced depression or continued drinking despite recognition that an ulcer was made worse by alcohol consumption).

Alfred Stevens La myope 1903

Reports vary as to whether bad eyes are caused (or exacerbated) by reading, but since my optometrist says my eyes have been stable for the last couple of years – and I definitely haven’t given up reading – I’m going to count that as a win. Reading is not bad for me.

Final score (by my count, anyway!): II: Not An Addict.

As to whether Stephanie Pearl-McPhee is indeed a knitting addict, you’ll just have to read the chapter entitled “Knit Junkie” in her book All Wound Up – a hilarious read for anyone, but especially for those of us who knit.

Just as I was congratulating myself on my official non-addict status, I came across this simpler (albeit less scientific) diagnostic test from Gail Carriger: “I suspect it may be like the difference between a drinker and an alcoholic; the one merely reads books, the other needs books to make it through the day.”

Woman reading a book (3588551767)

That one lands a little too close to home. A wise man once wrote: “Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey?”
I mastered reading long ago; it shall not master me.