Monday, 25 February 2019

On the value of re-reading

(peeks from under the piles of books read and not reviewed, and books not read, because I just got a lot of feelings and it appears I have something to say about that)

Ahh, re-reading books. I used to do it a lot more than I do now but then again, I used to read a lot more than I do now. I know people that don't do this and are surprised that I would a) re-read a book, and b) keep a book because I might want to re-read it in the future. But for most of my reading life, I've been re-reading books that I've enjoyed, although now I prioritise new reads over re-reads (gotta keep that TBR pile tamed).

Even so, the last book I re-read wasn't that long ago. As I finally read Thick as Thieves late last year, I realised that it had been too long since I had read the last two books of the series (the first two I had re-read a few years back). Too long meaning that there were details I couldn't remember very well. The broad strokes, yeah, those I had, but with any book by Megan Whalen Turner, you gonna need more than that (seriously, even if you have it committed to memory you'll be surprised and miss things. As they say, fool me once, shame on me, fool me 5, possibly 6 times, you must be Megan). So that brings us to one of the points on re-reading: our memory is not perfect, so if a series takes say, 10 years to produce a sequel, you'll need a refresher at some point (even if it takes less than that - my memory is not what it was). So, after I finished Thick as Thieves, realising there were some things I couldn't remember, I just picked The King of Attolia the next day. And what fun it was to be thrown back in that book, with a somewhat spotty knowledge of the Conspiracy of Kings and very fresh read of Thick as Thieves.

And that knowledge of what happens next brings us to point number two: hindsight is 20/20, and when you are re-reading you really appreciate the cleverness of an author, the details and the foreshadowing that are there that you missed the first time,. You pay attention to different aspects of the story, you may skip any parts you didn't particularly like and not miss the thread of the story (or read them anyway and have an 'Oh!' moment), and you may linger on the parts that you loved, reading them again and again. You are reading the same book you've already read, but the experience you are getting is a different one altogether.

The final points on the value of re-reading, and what lead me to want to write this down, come not from re-reading a book, but from listening to an adaptation of a beloved series, which I have not returned to in a very long time (especially not the first books). I'm talking about Earthsea, and the BBC radio series adaptation from 2015. A long time ago, I said I'd wished I could read these books again for the first time (along with some others by Ursula K. Le Guin). And while reading for the first time is a very specific experience, some of these books I haven't even re-read. This is due, mostly, to fear that the magic that I associate with these stories will be lost. I'm older, hopefully wiser, with more reading mileage and with a different understanding of the world than I had when I was 12 or 15 or 22 (the world itself is a very different place too). With these fears in mind (and also the terrible track record of Earthsea adaptations), I gave the radio series a try (previous BBC radio dramas have been very good, this one was shared by a friend whose opinion I trust, and since the metro was crowded it was easier to listen than to read my current book).

And it was like coming home. That's point number 3. Most of the times I've re-read books before have been because it is a comfort read. Reading something I love, because I'm in a streak of books that don't satisfy, because life is being troublesome, or just because I need something familiar. And being back at Earthsea was familiar. Ged and Tenar speaking to each other, as the stories are recounted, that was familiar. It wasn't familiar in the sense of 'oh I know these characters and these places and these stories'. No, it was familiar in the warmth you get when you are back at home after being away for so long, the one you get when you see a good friend. It was a very emotional response that I did not expect to have.

The final point, and that somehow connects to point number 2, is that books shape who we are. They make you see the world in a different and wider way. There might be moralities in them that will guide you or make you realise that they don't work for you, but hopefully they teach you to be better, and to understand yourself better. The Earthsea books are that from me. And listening to this story again, I could see some of the building blocks of the person I've become. But also that I have lost some lessons along the way (or that I had to re-learn them in some other way), while others only now make sense to me. A different (re-)read puts things in perspective, and so does being older and the different experiences we have through life. My experience of these stories now is obviously different from my experience then, and so are the lessons I learn. It’s not a new thing that books still can teach me how to be better and help me understand myself. It is a pleasant surprise when an old favourite still manages to do that almost 20 years later, both in the same ways that it did then and in completely new ways.

And while I've enjoyed the BBC radio drama very much, I still want to re-read these books (now slightly less afraid, because the magic clearly is still there). On a similar note, I have the radio drama for the Left Hand of Darkness, which I've yet to listen to (or re-read the book - it's only been like 15 years since I've read it) and I have exactly the same fears that I had with Earthsea.

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