Do Bookworms Read Too Many Books?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 27, 2019

Yesterday I reread “Vintage Season” by C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner for the third time. I’ve read the story twice in the last ten months. This time I read “Vintage Season” by listening to an audio edition on headphones while simultaneously reading the words on my iPad. Consuming fiction via two senses is the penultimate way to get into a story. I believe the ultimate way to fully experience a work of fiction is to read it several times.

The trouble with rereading is our TBR piles are always growing. We’re driven to brain-cram as many new stories into one lifetime as possible. Reading a story once is like driving through a city and claiming you’ve been there. Rereading a story the first time is like a two-day stay. Reading a story many times is like visiting a town for weeks. Literary scholars are those folks who move into a story as a permanent residence.

There’s value to being widely traveled in books, but at some point, all the places start looking the same. It’s a shame we can’t read everything. Even if I read just the great books, this lifetime won’t be enough.

Fiction is like finding old dinosaur bones. The first reading is an amateur fossil hunter digging up the bones and getting a rough idea what the creature looked like. Rereading is a professional paleontologist carefully reconstructing every aspect of that dinosaur.

The first time I read “Vintage Season” decades ago it was just another mind-blowing science fiction story. However, it stayed with me. I don’t actually remember the title of very many short stories, but I remembered this one. When I reread the story the second time last March when The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A came out on audio, it was like watching an old favorite movie I had first seen as a kid on a black and white TV and seeing it again on a new high definition TV and then realizing it wasn’t a black and white movie, but a Technicolor masterpiece. Reading “Vintage Season” again yesterday while listening to the audio version, felt like I was walking around inside a 3D movie.

This intense immersion with a story will not work with all stories. Every work of fiction is a creative vision by a writer encrypted and compressed into words. Fantastically rich visions can’t be decrypted and decompressed in one reading.

If our reading lives are racing through one new book after another we’re barely getting the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the story, and if we’re speed reading, it’s just an introductory abstraction.

I am now torn between chasing after all those novels and short stories I want to read before I die and rereading old favorites knowing I might reach a higher plane of bookworm existence.




17 thoughts on “Do Bookworms Read Too Many Books?”

  1. I hardly ever read a book again as there are always so many others to read. I also never used to watch movies I had already sen until recently and enjoyed them just as much if not more the second time. Therefore I will perhaps look more closely at becoming re-acquainted with past reads. Your obvious love of reading and affinity with the stories you are reading is tangible. Thank you for this post – it made me smile and has got me thinking. 🙂

  2. I can only reread books once every ten years or so. By that time I have forgotten most of it and my own view on literature has changed, and then I want to reincorporate those old books into my new understanding.

    1. Generally, I wait years to reread a book. But occasionally, especially with shorter works, I’ll reread sooner, or like Becky in another comment, turn around and immediately re-read. I’m finding I like to read a story with my eyes, and if I like it, track down an audio copy, and then reread it with my ears.

  3. I read a lot of new books but I often reread too. Sometimes I reread a book right after I finish the first reading – something in my head is going – huh? How did that get from point A to point C? – Wonderful.

    Other times I reread after a few months because a reading group will select something I’ve already read. If the book is meaty I relish this. Really good novellas and short stories are excellent for this because the authors have packed so much into so few words – James Joyce, Shirley Jackson, Gogol, Henry James and so many others – Edith Wharton.

    Then there is the occasional book which really stands out – Underworld by Don DeLillo, Pale Fire by Nabokov, anything by Penelope Fitzgerald, Alice Munro, others like the works of Faulkner and … (fill in the blank). I’ve read some of those three or more times and new facets always come to light. Those books are the ones I kind of “study,” I guess – but they’re also like old friends.

    One book (7 volumes?) I’d love to reread is In Search of Lost Time by Proust. I doubt I will ever get to it.

    1. Becky, you’re a horse of a different color when it comes to reading. You do it all. You read in quantity and quality. I’m always amazed at your observations in the book club, and the details of your blog reviews. I assume you must think several times faster than I do. And I still feel guilty for never finding time to read Proust just once.

  4. Ouch—that hurts, because it’s absolutely true. I specialize in short fiction, and there are probably a good 2,000 stories I’d still love to read. But because I hate leaving things half done, I like to finish the entire book in which I find each story. That means that the reading is multiplied even further. In my haste to read as many stories as I can, I cram them into my head as fast as I can, without extracting all the goodness from the story.

    And that’s not all. Reading so much short fiction leaves me with the feeling that I’m missing something—I should be squeezing in novels as well, otherwise what kind of a fan am I? So that’s why I’m halfway through a Silverberg novel at the moment (and loving it).

    I also bought an apparently unread copy of Bleak House at a charity shop a few days ago. I already have the book, but I’d like to approach it afresh without being distracted my my student annotations from 43 years ago!

    1. Bleak House is one of my favorite Dickens books. Have you seen the great Masterpiece version of it that came out a few years ago?

      Yeah, I’m systematically trying to cram in as many SF stories as possible, while also trying to discover the very best ones to cherish.

      1. Nope, never saw that. The only classic adaptation I’ve seen recently is The Woman in White, based on a Wilkie Collins novel I haven’t read.

        1. I tried to watch an adaptation of The Woman in White recently, and couldn’t get into it. I did see the new version of Vanity Fair and it was excellent. Made me want to read the book.

  5. Here’s the thing about re-reading: a lot of what we remember of a story, both in detail and emotion, actually comes from inside our own head rather than from the writing, and that reader-created content is something that changes over time. In other words, the writing on the page is usually at least as much evocative as merely descriptive. No two readers ever truly read exactly the same thing and that mechanism is also at work when one returns to a book later in life, as one is now a somewhat different person.

    This seems pertinent and it’s a good read:

  6. I would estimate rereading to be 10% of my total reading. There’s just too much New Stuff to read. And Old Stuff that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. That being said, I do intend on rereading Jack Vance’s DEMON PRINCE series sometime in 2019. And, right now, I’m rereading Jane Austen’s SENSE AND SENSIBILITY because we’re going to see a play version this weekend where all the actors are on roller skates!

  7. I am sorry that I have not read “Vintage Season” and cannot make directly relevant comments. Rereading a book usually brings out more details for me but how much this matters depends on the relevance and depth of the book in the first place. Some books are just shallow fun and they can be fun again but they do not provide any ideas or information to keep in mind. Other books can alter one’s perspective of reality and say things “educators” never provide. And much of what you find is not mentioned in reviews.

    I read “A Fall of Moondust” in grade school. Clarke used Plato’s allegory of the cave to explain reality through infrared. Who the hell was Plato? I had never heard of him. I ended up reading more about Greek philosophers than I got from “educators” through college.

    How do you figure out what is worth reading the first time much less multiple times?

    1. Good point. I can read where impulse takes me, or I can read from lists that claim to be the greatest books of all time. Sometimes a random novel can be the most relevant work at the moment, like when I first read Replay by Ken Grimwood. Sometimes can I read a classic and I’ll think, “Why didn’t someone tell me about this one sooner!” But other times, “Why do they make people read this book?”

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