Ever since I learned to read, I’ve been a chain reader, sometimes literally finishing one book and picking up another one. Books have been my refuge from the bleakness and bad news of the day, a way to while away time while in line at the store, and my companion on constant rides on transit and planes. I even shave while reading to alleviate the boredom of the task (obviously, I use a safety razor). And, inevitably, I re-read.
The first time I read a book, I may have many motivations. Obviously, I need to have an interest in the topic or the writer, but I’m not a very discriminating reader, so that hardly narrows down why I might read something – everything from graphic novels to Middle English poetry might seem interesting to me in different moods. At times, I read because the writer has a reputation, and I want to push back the boundaries of my ignorance a furlong or two. At other times, I read because I’ve been given a book (I count heavily on friends to urge on me books that I might not pick for myself, and, often enough, I find myself pleasantly surprised). Still other times, I read because nothing better is at hand.
However, why I re-read is easier to delineate. I rarely re-read non-fiction from cover to cover, although I might return to particular pages when researching or needing to prod my memory. Mostly, what I re-read is fiction. If I was trying to be a snob, I would claim that I re-read only worthwhile books, but that would be a half-truth. Unless my tastes change, I doubt I’ll re-read standards of the literary canon like Henry James or Anthony Trollope; I recognize that their writing shows some skill, but, like opera, it’s a skill I recognize without appreciating.
It would be more exact to say that I re-read fiction whose skill has impressed me with its craft, regardless of how the canon regards it: Charles Dickens, but also Wilkie Collins; John Fowles and Lawrence Durrell, but also any number of writers who labored their life away in the science fiction ghetto.
What others think of my taste makes little difference to me (although I confess I can’t quite bring myself to read graphic novels on the bus). Instead, what matters is that the work shows some skill. The over-maligned Stephen King, for instance, is a master at pacing and observation of Americana – two skills that are usually missing from the academic’s checklist for greatness, but which average readers reward unconsciously by purchasing his work.
However, the books I re-read the most are those that are not only give aesthetic pleasure, but also reinforce my world view. Three books (or series) in particular come to mind: T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which shaped my sense of right and wrong; J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, from which I learned the core values of endurance and rising to the occasion; and Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin novels, which idealize friendship and a detached but amused view of the world while also offering historical adventure in the 19th century British navy.
Probably, you could gauge my character very accurately, not only from the common nature of these books – none, notably, have a modern or mundane setting – but also from the number of times I’ve re-read them. White I’ve re-read at least a dozen times since childhood, and Tolkien – the last time I checked – over 33 times, a number that astonishes me as I write it. By contrast, I have only read the twenty or so novels in O’Brian’s series three times through, but, then, I came to them much later that the other two, and they probably amount to two or three times the words of White’s and Tolkien’s classics. I’m re-reading O’Brian now, savoring favorite lines (“Jack, you have debauched my sloth”) and finding new subtleties.
The chances are, I’ll re-read all three – to say nothing of other favorites – many times in the rest of my life. However, I doubt I’ll re-read any of them as many times again as I already have. As I grow older, I am more jealous of time, and more aware of all that I have still to read. In fact, probably a new book has to impress me more than my classics did before I’ll re-read it in preference to moving on to something new. But a change of heart or a prolonged illness might change that, and, even if they don’t, I still expect many hours of pleasure ahead with my old favorites.