Rereading your favorite novel, love or leave it?

They say that every time you read a book it’s a different book, because you are different. If you read a book when you’re twelve you bring one set of experiences, opinions, and influences to that reading. Read it again at twenty-one, it’s a new book because you’ve survived to your majority, studied, read, and maybe even written something yourself. So if you keep reading that book, at thirty, forty, fifty, does it keep changing for you?

I submit that it is possible to read a book too many times. Unless you are dissecting it for the purpose of figuring out its structure you can bore yourself. There are so many books in the world! Read a new one! Only my most favorite novels hold up time after time, offering up nuggets of humor and wisdom again. My favorite novel is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen precisely because there is so much left out of it. I read it first at seventeen. I reread it looking for more, sure there is something I missed. Most novels, even ones that I absolutely adored, stories that make me gasp and cry, leave it all on the page. Because, frankly, that’s where it’s at, writing-wise.

I’ve been thinking about reader reactions, and rereading, since reading this piece in the Guardian. Authors are generally voracious readers and sometimes reread novels out of necessity (nothing else in the house) or to study the way an admired author got the job done. Poetry, of course, and classics like Shakespeare, Doestoevsky, and Jane Austen are definite rereads. The classics hold up because they are dense and enjoyable and fulfill a reader’s need for philosophy of living, human emotion, or just plain excitement.

As you can see from the article authors have a diverse list of favorites that are often very personal. Reading is like that. Have you ever given someone a book (that they didn’t request, written by someone they’ve never read) and wondered why they never read it? You loved it so they should too. But like jewelry and perfume, novels are an individual taste. Often as readers we don’t know exactly why some stories resonate, holding us captive and nestling deep in our subconscious, while famous novels loved by millions leave us cold. It doesn’t matter what you read as long as you’re reading for pleasure (unless you are in a Nazi book club. If so, my condolences.) Pick a novel, new or old, fresh to you or as familiar and comforting as an old sweater, and read it. Enjoying reading is one of the most basic, simple pleasures of life.

Reader reactions fascinate me. As a writer you can only write the book you can write, and hope that it appeals to someone (or many someones.) In the age of online reviews anyone who reads a book can offer his or her opinion of it to the world, uncensored and often poorly spelled. It’s sort of like fan mail. One of my novels now has nearly 40 reviews on Amazon (a consequence of a giveaway campaign last summer) and as much as I hate the bad reviews and cherish the good ones I find the whole thing amusing. How can one reader write: “something for everyone, intrique, romance, murder and all tied up neatly together,” and another have the opposite reaction: “too much nonsense in it. It took me forever to read as I was very bored with parts”? Well, because one might be fifteen, the other seventy. One might be used to reading romance novels, another might be into ‘Twilight.’ You never know. I couldn’t have written this book when I was twenty (Blackbird Fly, by the way, written when I was 50ish. I couldn’t have written any novel at 20 but I loved my journalism classes.)

I bring to the table my own experiences, just as the reader does. I love that I can hear what they think. It makes writing a lot less lonely.

Author: Lise McClendon

writer, filmmaker, blogger, publisher, snow lover, sun worshiper, woman.

4 thoughts on “Rereading your favorite novel, love or leave it?”

  1. well, that’s just plain weird — all week long, I have been thinking of this very topic! Why? Because I recently discovered how my car’s CD player worked (don’t ask) and have taken to listening to books on tape as I commute. I wanted a big fat book to last me awhile, so when I saw “Clan of the Cave Bear” on the shelves, I bought it. I had read it and loved it when it first came out, I think sometime in the ’80’s. I remember being fascinated by it. But now I am older, have a lot of books under my own belt, have come to prefer a definite writing style (less adjectives is more!) and, well, having a book read out loud really, really points out the flaws in it.

    I thought I would go insane listening to this book for the first ten chapters, but I’d paid too damn much for it to stop trying. The reader had an insipid voice that didn’t go with the book I remembered… she made the fatal mistake of speaking the children’s dialogue is baby voices.,. and the presence of SO many adjectives — rivers of them! — not to mention the adverbs, wobbly point of view, strange interruptions of quasi-scientific observation in the middle of third person limited omniscient passages and long, meandering paragraphs about the must mundane side topic, often ones already covered before — well, it all grated on my nerves to the max. I found I loathed my once favorite book. Finally, and lord it took too long, the book segued into the passages that must have caught my interest the first time around: the daily life of people in Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal times: packing their baby’s bottoms with fluff from plants instead of diapers, the stews they would make, their implements, how they would use skins, how they hunted larger animals on foot, their use of plants for medicine. Those passages are getting me through the book, but I am thinking…. this is one favorite novel I should have left behind and picked up an anthropological book about Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal people instead. It makes me wonder what the heck my taste was like back when I first read it….

  2. Katy – I loved Clan of the Cave Bear back in the ’80s too! But possibly not enough to read any of the sequels… I know what you mean about hearing all the flaws. When I had my books narrated recently, I had to listen to them to proof them, and it was agonizing! (My own books can never be my favorites, at least not all of them.) On the other hand a great audiobook makes a novel so much more loved, and is a reread that works if done well. Try Christopher Moore’s FOOL on audio as you drive to work (but not with kids in the car.) Hilarious, raunchy, and brilliantly done. I just listened to his new one SACRE BLEU, about France and Van Gogh and the impressionists and “something’s odd about this tube of blue paint.” Not as great as FOOL but very very good.

  3. I used to read Lord of the Rings about once a year when I was a teenager. In my early 40s, I picked it up again and found it almost laughably pompous and long winded. I picked up “Fellowship of the Ring” last year and couldn’t put it down. Sometimes it runs in cycles.

    1. I never read Tolkien as a teenager and could never get past The Hobbit as an adult. Thanks for making me feel better about that! Sadly the movies scared the crap out of me even as an adult. Mostly the headless horsemen.

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