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?
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?
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.”
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.
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?