Why I reread books, and which ones make the cut for repeated reading

With all the books in the world, you don’t ever have to repeat your reading. You can read a new book a day, and never get to the end of potential new books.

This thought makes me sad, sometimes.

I don’t want to miss any good ones. But I will, of course, and even knowing that the amount of reading time I have in my lifetime is but a proverbial drop in the reading bucket, I choose to spend a good bit of it rereading.

“A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.”

Robertson Davies

It’s about why I’m reading in the first place.

It’s also about becoming more aware of myself: my habits, my tendencies, my strengths and weaknesses, what I actually enjoy (versus what I think I enjoy), and what helps me and adds something good to my life.

Why am I reading books, anyway

Why? is such a great question. I’m using it more and more as a question I direct toward myself:

  • Why am I doing this? Why am I not doing this?
  • Why am I avoiding this thing I should do?
  • Why am I doing this thing I should avoid?
  • Why do I feel like I should do this anyway?
  • Why is this important to me? Why is this not important to me?
  • Why do I care about this? Why do I want that?
  • Why am I worried/anxious/upset/sad/confused/overwhelmed?
  • Why am I happy/peaceful/calm/at ease/hopeful/energized?

I’m learning a lot about myself. That may or may not be helpful for anyone else. 🙂

Reading is a lifelong habit and a source of great pleasure for me. It’s a lifelong habit because it’s a source of great pleasure.

“We are more likely to repeat a behavior when the experience is satisfying. Pleasure teaches your brain that a behavior is worth remembering and repeating.”

James Clear

It’s also a source of learning, self-improvement, and perspective, but the why of reading, for me, is simple: I like it. It’s enjoyable. I love the intellectual game of words and meanings. I love the experience of diving into a story.

Reading is easy because I’ve done it so long and so often.

So it’s enjoyable, and it’s easy, and it comes with lots of rewards that are personally satisfying for me: learning, gaining new words, being able to place people and events in a deeper context, understanding more about the world, connecting random bits of knowledge in my brain, finding solutions and insights, getting new perspectives, unlocking pieces of the puzzle that is life, and–perhaps most importantly–feeling a sense of being understood, of belonging.

There’s a powerful sense of belonging, or kinship, with others who also enjoy reading.

And there’s a beautiful sense of connection, of being understood, when you read a story or a book or even a line that says, in words, some feeling or sense or experience you’ve had and, perhaps, never known how to express.

I read to understand but I also read to be understood. I read to gain knowledge and skill and perspective, but mostly I read for the pleasure of it.

Why I reread books

First and obvious reason: to repeat a pleasure.

If I have deeply enjoyed a book, then it makes sense to revisit and repeat the enjoyment.

Do you have a favorite meal? Do you only want to eat it once and then never again?

We repeat what we enjoy, if we can. So there’s that.

“Such rereading is not purely a matter of escapism, even though that is one reason for its attraction: we should note that it’s not what readers are escaping from but that they are escaping into that counts most. Most of us do not find fictional worlds appealing because we find our own lives despicable, though censorious people often make that assumption. Auden once wrote that “there must always be … escape-art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep.” The sleeper does not disdain consciousness.”

Alan Jacobs

Second reason: I want to think more deeply.

I have felt my thinking patterns shift: the busier I am, the more small responsibilities I hold, the more time I spend online or on my phone, the more fragmented my thinking becomes.

Multiple times, I have taken breaks from short-form consumption (like social media, tv shows, and articles) and every time, after a bit of withdrawal and then a period of dopiness, I find my thinking shift into deeper, bigger, satisfying, expanding swoops and spirals and dives. Thinking feels spacious again.

Books, in general, help me think more deeply. Certain types of books are more helpful than others. And rereading books of this type (which I haven’t really defined but know it when I read it) helps more.

“Master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and reread them…digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times and make notes and analyses of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride comes from hasty reading. Some men are disabled from thinking by their putting meditation away for the sake of much reading. In reading let your motto be ‘much not many.”

Charles H. Spurgeon

Third reason: I want to be affected and changed by what I read.

Not by all of it, I guess. I don’t want to get stupider if I read a stupid book, but that seems obvious. I do want to let what I read have an impact on how I think, what I believe, how I behave, choices I make, what I see in life, how I live my values, how I see others, etc. Some books, in particular, have shaken me and brought major shifts in my life, and I want that effect to deepen and remain. Repetition is key.

“I, too, feel the need to reread the books I have already read,” a third reader says, “but at every rereading I seem to be reading a new book, for the first time. Is it I who keep changing and seeing new things of which I was not previously aware? Or is reading a construction that assumes form, assembling a great number of variables, and therefore something that cannot be repeated twice according to the same pattern?

Italo Calvino

Fourth reason: I want to remember more of what I’ve read.

I don’t remember things I read very well.

I hold them in short-term memory, but I lose my grasp not long after. Character names, plots, ideas, concepts. It’s not about the difficulty of the material; it’s about giving it a place in long-term memory. That requires some deliberate work. Taking notes helps, writing about what I’ve read helps, reviewing helps, and rereading helps.

“I do like people to read the books twice, because I write my novels about ideas which concern me deeply and I think are important, and therefore I want people to take them seriously. And to read it twice of course is taking it seriously.”

William Golding

Books I find worthy of a reread

Of course, I don’t want to reread every book, just like I don’t want a repeat of every meal–even if it was enjoyable. Some choices are wise for an experience, but foolish for a habit.

In general, rereading is for books that have changed the way I think or view the world in a significant way; books that help me experience and–thus–respond to the world in the way I want to; books that challenge and stretch me; books that help me apply practical methods of improving my life; and books that I really enjoy and find satisfying.

“An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. . . . We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.”

C.S. Lewis

I don’t necessarily do a cover-to-cover reread. Some books I revisit in sections and spurts; others I dive into when dealing with specific issues, then drop; some I read regularly, like a religious text; and some I read start to finish.

Here’s a sampling. You can find reading notes for many of these here.

  • Paul Ferrini, Love Without Conditions
  • Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul
  • James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
  • James Clear, Atomic Habits
  • Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age
  • Loren Andrews, Silver Mystic
  • Ayn Rand, Anthem
  • Bukowski’s poetry
  • Rumi’s poetry
  • John Gall, Systemantics
  • Robert Greene, Mastery and The 48 Laws of Power
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Do you reread books? Which ones? I’d love to hear your thoughts and rereading recommendations. Let me know.