The reader's dilemma - to read or re-read
Perspectives on the words that flash by your eyes, enter your brain, and hopefully get stuck there like flies in a web and what happens if they don't
I’ve been meaning to write about reading for some time because I’m indebted to my (and your) ability to read. After all, it’s December and this is the time of year when readers and writers of all stripes trot out their “best of” lists for the year for inspection. It’s timely, right?
It might be a timely choice but I am not sharing any “best of” lists today. Instead, I want to talk a bit about the act of reading itself and reflect on some recent posts on the topic.
Choosing what to read: joy or dilemma?
Each of us has a finite number of hours in their lifetime to read and a practically limitless collection of books, essays, newsletters, blog posts, letters, magazines, newspapers, comic books, junk mail, notebooks, texts and annotated short video to choose from. It’s a cliche but, darn it, it’s true. In fact, there are so many options that instead of relisting them each time I broach the subject in the rest of this essay I’m going to use the generic term “book”.
When you’re a young reader you basically have two types of reading to do: stuff you have to read for school and stuff you get to read in your spare time. As an adult, you might have to do both work and school related reading in addition to your personal, fun reading, plus some other types of reading, like gathering information you need for volunteer responsibilities or for hobbies. So you have to make choices about how you’ll spend your reading time.
Deciding what to read can be difficult. This week,wrote about this challenge, pointing out how both the topic and the quality of writing can inform your reading experience:
Austin points out that there are authors who cover topics that are dear to his heart but his dislike for the author’s writing style (or their writing quality) turns a potentially enjoyable experience into something as dreadful as a dental appointment - the experience either turns out to be an unfortunate surprise that gradually dawns on you like a creeping horror or else, like a tooth extraction, you know that you are cursed to suffer through the experience to get to where you need to be. I’ve experienced these types of reading disappointments like many of you. An unread book is rife with possibilities: reading that book could delight, disappoint or simply be unremarkable. Sometimes your eyes will have to scan their way through a boring read.
To re-read or not re-read…
Another important choice is whether to read something for the first time or to re-read a book. I’ve heard a number of people say that there are too many books that they haven’t read to consider re-reading a book: this is their answer to the finite time dilemma.
I’m a fan of re-reading, so I guess I’m the yang to their yin. Yes, I certainly enjoy many books upon first read but I see a lot of value in re-reading.devoted a newsletter to the subject of re-reading this week:
This quote about re-reading really stuck with me:
Re-reading engrained things in me—ideas, grammar, and perhaps most important, how styles and approaches would differ from one magazine or author to another. I was studying writing and editing, in effect, even when it may have looked like what I was doing was staving off the tedium of childhood and adolescence on the living room couch.
I don’t know about you but I find that my memory gets a bit worse every year. A book has to pack a heavy emotional punch for me to remember more than a few details or else it needs a strong salience to my career or to a personal project. Remembering all relevant plot points from a novel, even entire quotes, seemed to come a lot easier when I was a kid.
Or did it?
I’m increasingly convinced that re-reading was what let memorable scenes and events embed themselves in my brain. I like to re-read a book that I enjoyed or that I find valuable. There’s at least half a dozen books that I keep nearby at night, mostly science fiction novels. I don’t read them cover to cover, I focus on my favorite chapters or scenes. They’re familiar and they hold few surprises at this point but they entertain me if nothing else and I know where to find my favorite passages.
This points to the value of re-reading: the power of repetition to help you retain what you’ve read. You can use marginalia, a Second Brain or other electronic knowledge management system or a handwritten commonplace book to help retrieve the important bits that you want to remember but re-reading plays an important role in reinforcing the memories you’ve built. On top of that, re-reading can also increase comprehension about a complex subject because often while reading you simply can’t absorb all of the information and all of the meaning all at once. You might need years of life experience to appreciate what the author is trying to tell you because you just weren’t ready yet.
There’s a lot I could say about the different types of reading: from elementary to inspectional to analytical to synoptic. But maybe that’s for another essay, although I’ll include a couple of links to those topics if you’re curious and someday I’ll provide my own thoughts on them.
But now I’ll turn it over to you, my good H.A.T.T.E.R.: are there too many books in the world to stop to re-read any of them? Or do you relish the opportunity to return to prior reads? Why not share your thoughts in the comments?
P.S. here are a couple of resources about the different types of reading if your curiosity is piqued, both of them inspired by the classic resource How to Read a Book:
Copyblogger - How to Read (my first introduction to How to Read a Book)
State of Reading - by Jim Clair (I enjoyed learning about Jim’s reading workflow)
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