The diaries you don't keep
Anarchy rules

Re-readivists and other WhoDunnits

A few times now, in a discussion about writing, I've been floored by someone saying, "Why would you read a book a second time? I never have." Sure, I know that people vary in how many books they re-read, and whether twice is enough or they're hardcore re-readivists, and in a general conversation I might have been (slightly) less surprised. But these have all been aspiring writers of one sort or another, so, Never?

I do have a bus test for how good a book is: if you left it on the bus, how much time and money would you spend trying to get it back, or get hold of another copy? Maybe it's not worth the bother at all. But assuming that the book's on your own or your local library's shelf, and you could re-read it if you chose, why would you, instead of reading something new? I suppose the obvious reason for not re-reading a book is that you've gathered everything it has to offer. If all you're after is facts, whether it's facts about Lenin, or the prevalence of the lesser spotted whitethroat in the chalk downlands of Sussex, or facts about WhoDunnit, whether the world will be saved by Alpha Male, or whether Sweet Girl is going to get her Alpha Male or Nice Single Mum find much nicer Beta Male, then a single read will supply what you desire. Or will it?

Beryl Bainbridge says that she assumes that all her readers read a book as she does: fast first, to find out what happens, and then, if it seems worth it, again, more slowly, to get everything else. And my bus test part two is that to me a really good book is one which has more to offer when you re-read. Which can only be true, by definition, if it's a book which won't yield everything it has to offer at the first read. Yes, if you're a thoughtful reader you'll pick up some subtle, underground stuff on the first read, and that may be enough, but I'd even argue that reading too slowly and analytically on a first read can actually be counterproductive. Writing is all about trying to create a whole, and so if you're learning to write it's very important to read a book as a whole, and then try to separate out the strands which make it the particular whole that you've experienced. Just as most writers recognise that writing and revising/editing are two different processes, it's almost impossible, I think, to read a whole and read the parts, fully at the same time. So, what makes a book worth re-reading? Some of the following are things which any reader might find, some are specific to us writers, but all are part of the reader-writer's training in craftsmanship.

1) To live with the characters in that world a bit longer. I'm sure I wasn't the only child who, finishing a book in the middle of the night, so didn't want to let go that she went straight back to the beginning and started again. I even do it with the best non-fiction. But it's also lovely to return to a world you knew years ago: like returning as an adult to the scene of a childhood holiday: it's at once both new and familiar.

2) To enjoy the writing: the taste, texture, and rhythm of the prose, the balance or lurch, rush or meander of phrases, the metaphors and images. To me this is the equivalent of looking at the brushwork in a painting, or the toolmarks on a carving: you feel in a physical way the interplay of meaning and craft.

3) To think about the themes and ideas: betrayal, courage, childhood, cowardice, the bonfire of the vanities or the mathematics of love

4) For the pleasure of reading something absorbing which won't keep you up all night, because you know what happens (Or is that just me? I'm hopeless at putting down a new book I'm enjoying. I read fast, and until I had children I could honestly say I'd never gone to sleep with a new book unfinished. The dark circles under the eyes weren't pretty, though...)

5) To understand the facts better - the finer details of plot, the history which underpins the characters' lives

6) As straightforward anaesthetic, to occupy the bit of your brain which would otherwise be fretting about whatever, in a way which won't use up as much emotional energy as a new good book will.

7) To enjoy/study the themes and ideas: how light is shed on different angles of the same problem, how the metaphors, references and background all add depth and texture and a little bit of magic

8) To see/study how all the clues to the murderer actually fitted together, how they were buried among the red herrings.

9) To enjoy/study the plotting and structure: how the tension mounts and the land mines are laid, the rhythm of action and reflection, the pattern and interweaving of the subplots

10) To enjoy/study the characterisation: who they are, how it's done

11) To enjoy/study the prose

12) To help to find your voice

And yes, that last one sounds counter-intuitive. Finding your voice - that essential and un-pindownable asset - is all about your voice, not someone else's, isn't it? Well, yes. But the way you find that voice is not to mimic others but to think like an actor: to train your writerly body so that it's both fit and relaxed, and can respond without restriction to whatever your writerly mind is trying to say. Reading to go beyond the gathering of basic facts expands your vocabulary, tunes your ear for rhythm, accent and sound, refines your sense of sentence structure and length, and expands your ideas of how plot, characters, ideas and prose all work together to make a whole. And it's in re-reading that you can go beyond the facts, and learn how writing really works.