What makes a book rereadable?

What makes a book rereadable?

There are books I read only once and books I reread, often more than once. This post looks at some of my rereads to see if they have anything in common. As a writer, one thing I’d like to know is if what leads me to reread a book is the same for other readers.

So I pulled three books off my shelf, almost at random. These days, if I have a book in physical form, it’s because I want to reread it. Otherwise I buy a less expensive and more easily stored e-book. The three books now on my desk are Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Warrior’s Apprentice, and Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief. Can I find common characteristics in these three quite different books?

Pride and Prejudice

I’ve loved Jane Austen since I was in the seventh grade, and it’s a love that’s aged well. I still love Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. They feel real to me, and I see the shaping of their personal lives as something worth caring about. Critics are wrong to dismiss a finely wrought portrayal of domestic life as somehow trivial. Family and romantic relationships affect how happy any of us is.

Additionally, Austen valued character development in the moral sense. That is, her books make a claim that we are obligated to figure out what it means to be a good person and try to live up to that standard. Would we care for a sister, as Elizabeth cares for Jane? Can we exercise self control as Lydia does not? Can we overcome our pride and our prejudices to avoid harming other people and our own happiness?

Warrior’s Apprentice

I’m making a big leap from a realistic novel published in 1813 to a piece of contemporary science fiction in The Warrior’s Apprentice. I can do that because, for me, the qualities that make a book rereadable transcend era and genre.

The major attraction of Warrior’s Apprentice is the central character, Miles Vorkorsigan. Miles was born with a deformed body but still fights his way to having a soldier’s life. He compensates for his physical limitations with his considerable (and slightly twisted) cleverness. It’s probably not an accident that, as someone whose career depended on academic success, I admire clever characters.

Because Miles has to go about his military career in unexpected ways, he often surprises me, which I like. He also makes me laugh, and not always with him. He’s one of those people who gets things rolling and then finds himself chasing events that have spiraled out of control. Hence the title of the book, deliberately patterned after Goethe’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

The Thief

Again, I’m jumping genres but only slightly. The Thief is a fantasy set in a quasi-Greek world that was originally published as a middle-grade novel, i.e. a book intended for readers 10 and up. Currently, it’s sold on young adult shelves, i.e. as a book intended for teen readers. Really, it’s unclassifiable. Every Megan Whalen Turner fan I know is an adult.

The Thief rewards rereading more than any other book I know. The first time I read it, I thought its central character, Gen, violated the principle that the protagonist must protag. That is, the central character must drive events. Gen seemed to be being dragged along by other people, and yet I was engaged anyway.

The second time I read the book, I read almost every incident differently than I had the first time. The book includes a big twist near the end, and often twisty books don’t work well on rereading because the twist doesn’t surprise the reader the second time. But I’ve never felt that way about this book. It continues to surprise and delight me. Megan Whalen Turner is a magician of a writer.

Generalizations?

So am I able to draw any generalizations from this? Well, I repeatedly mention loving the characters. I’d guess that for most people, a plot draws them through the book the first time, but a book’s characters are what make them love the book and reread it.

I value clever characters and those who struggle to do something hard, whether that’s win a battle or sacrifice their own desires for the sake of someone else.

Just as a curiosity, I notice that all the books I chose are by women. I have books by men on my reread shelf, but there are more by women. Is that a coincidence? I’m honestly not sure.

So what do you reread? Why? What are the qualities that matter to you?

Author bonus: Another book I reread is Rachel Neumeier’s The Floating Islands, so I was thrilled to find she’s written a review of The Wind Reader. You can find it here.

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18 thoughts on “What makes a book rereadable?

  1. Interesting question. I’m a big rereader, which I sometimes deplore as my TBR list is so long. I reread some books because I yearn to revisit their settings or worlds: Peake’s Titus Alone and Gormenghast, M. John Harrison’s Light or his Viriconium books, Adams’s Maia, HPL’s At the Mountains of Madness, anything by Jack Vance. Others I reread because I know I’ve barely scratched their thematic or narrative surfaces: Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Zelazny’s Amber series. And there are “comfort books” that I often reach for when I just want something to read for a bit while falling asleep–books that are familiar after multiple readings but can still entertain, surprise, or move me: Wodehouse, Tolkien, Ron Goulart, Heyer’s mystery novels, anything from my vast collection of Lovecraft pastiche.

    1. That’s a really interesting assortment of books. It’s like certain people: you don’t get tired of being around them.

  2. You’ve nailed it, Dorothy. I find myself rereading for several reasons. First is the immediate “I must just read this again.” This usually corresponds with that shriek, “no, no, it can’t be over!” I’m finding this more and more with ebooks where I am not cognizant of book length relative to my progress.
    I also tend to reread when I have enthused to someone and recommended the book (article, essay, website, video).
    The third thing is what I think of as sparks, sort of the rabbit trails where ideas connect and I can’t wait to see how they really do mesh. Or not sometimes. And then there’s that, as Rebecca noted, comfort rereads. Just feels good and matches my mood, circumstances, or needs.

    1. I don’t think I’ve reread a book right away. I apparently like a long enough break to have at least semi-fresh eyes. I tend to do it when I can’t find anything new that satisfies me.

      1. I reread two books immediately: Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Zelazny’s Lord of Light. Usually, like you, I want a change, but those two really hooked me.

  3. Great post! I reread Megan Whalen Turner too; she’s a genius, IMHO. And it’s the characters and their paths that draw me in.

    Otherwise, whether realistic/historical or SFF, I’d say the books I choose to reread create their own worlds, worlds I want to visit over and over. Some. of course, are comfort reads. I recently reread The Lord of the Rings, and also A Wrinkle in Time. L’Engle, Tolkien, and Lewis are constants for me. Other books I’ve reread recently include Kate Seredy’s The Singing Tree, because we need her humanist vision in this broken world, and L.M. Boston’s Enemy at Green Knowe, which shows so clearly both that evil is real, and that it can be fought. But I love Boston, most of all, for her settings and the sheer beauty of her prose. Ursula Le Guin, too. I reread Jane Eyre, too, and also some Dickens.

    But what is it about a world that seems so real that you keep wanting to go back? I think you’re right. In the long run, it’s the characters that stay with you. Meg was the first character I identified with strongly, and I still do. All the other books I reread also have characters I love. But the whole world, in my case, helps to pull me in

    1. World building is an interesting issue. I think it’s JK Rowling’s great achievement too. She did it so well that Universal Studios can build a Harry Potter World and people rush to visit it. But not everyone responds to that. I once heard Lois McMaster Bujold speak about a project she and some romance writers were doing where they tried to cross over the two genres, and the romance writers basically asked what all this world building stuff was for.

      Partly it’s just that it’s interesting. Another tale about life in the suburbs can seem pretty dull.

      1. I bet that was the same project she worked on with Mary Jo Putney! That reminds me that I need to add that to my Amazon wishlist …

  4. I actually prefer “The Vor Game” to “Warrior’s Apprentice,” but Bujold is definitely on my permanent re-read list. I love how she mixes and plays with genres, and I especially love that she presents a FUNCTIONAL future, not yet another dystopia. There are lots of ordinary people in the background of her books who are just cruising around living their lives. It’s a refreshing break from all of the dystopia.

    Wodehouse is also on my permanent re-read list. From the romance side, Mary Jo Putney and Lisa Kleypas.

  5. I’ve recently reread Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, both after many years. Both books speak to me for really personal reasons, the first because it reminds me of the California aerospace community I used to work in (and I love the mysterious communication network that presages the Internet), and the second because the Yiddish words and phrasing remind me of my family growing up.

    Other times, though, I might reread a book after some years and wonder why I enjoyed it so much the first time. Agatha Christie for example…

    1. I’ve read both those books, but it’s been a long time.

      Christie is an interesting example. Mysteries can be hard to reread anyway because they depend on, well, mystery. But also, Christie is pretty formulaic, which makes it even harder. But a friend of mine wrote a YA version of And Then There Were None (called Ten, by Gretchen McNeal). It’s about ten teenagers who hold a weekend party at a beach house owned by some absent parents. They wind up marooned there, getting picked off one by one. The book sold pretty well, which is a sign Christie’s story held up for new readers.

      1. Oh, there are some mysteries I love to reread! Not Christie so much, but just about anything by Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers. Again, it’s the characters, settings, and language that get me.

        Christie was really strong on plotting, however, and her plots do hold up.

        1. At one time, I read Sayers and then reread her too. It was the characters of Peter and Harriet that kept me coming back.

  6. Great topic, Dorothy! Thank you. For me, humor in the form of “autobiographical essay” is re-readable many times over, such as Betty MacDonald’s books (The Egg and I again and again!). Or, David Sedaris. Dark humor, family situations … for some reason, those books are worn and cracked on my shelf!

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