Reading vs. Rereading


I just recently finished reading Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Or rereading, I should say, since I’d read it before. Multiple times, actually. And both as a child and an adult. But something – I’m not sure what – got me reaching for it the other day, and I’m incredibly glad I did.

There are so many books out there, another bundle each week that screams and begs to be read. (Do books not scream at you? Weird.) Some days, when the presence of all those unread – and ultimately unreadable – books feels particularly pronounced, I purposely avoid bookstores and review sites so that the crazy urge to spend my savings on books and lock myself in a room for a decade just to catch up doesn’t flare up on me.

All of which is to say that, when choosing what to read next, it often seems counterintuitive, and even unproductive, to pick a book that you’ve already read. But now and again, it should be done. And if you’re a writer, I’d even say that it must be done.

The Witches, of course, was a safe choice. It’s a quick read, for one thing, and though I probably couldn’t have recounted the plot in great detail, I knew the gist of it, and also, most importantly, knew that I’d enjoyed it immensely every time I’d read it. But going back to remember in particular what I’d found so delightful about the book as a child and what I’d found so admirable about it as an adult – it worked like a corrective. It left me feeling centered, refocused, and revitalized. As a reader, the rereading served as a sort of bridge to my old selves, letting me visit them for a bit and reminiscence. As a writer, the rereading reminded why I’m doing what I’m doing, waking up every morning and putting in hour after hour in front of a notebook or at the computer.

Stephen King once said that in order to become a better writer you must do two things: write a lot and read a lot. I agree. Profoundly. But I’d add an asterisk to that, and say that, for every few new books you read, you should go back and read an old favorite, or even one you thought was only okay. You’re bound to notice something new in it, and in seeing how far you’ve come since your original reading of the book, you can map out the journey you’ve so far taken, and make a more informed decision about where you ought to be headed next.

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