Why are some astonishing books less interesting when re-read?

Readers and writers often discuss whether or not they re-read books. While many of us have too many new books we want to read to spend much time re-reading old ones, the consensus is that there are usually a few comfort-food old books we enjoy multiple times.

I’ve re-read most of Isabel Allende’s books at least once, some of Pat Conroy’s bools several times, and an old Scot’s language trilogy A Scot’s Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon multiple times. Why? The reasons are mostly subjective, but usually include interesting characters, compelling plots, a fine use of language, and the likelihood of discovering something new in the story each time I go through it.

I very seldom re-read page-turner novels. They keep my attention the first time, but the plots are too linear and predictable to be interesting if I try to pick up these books a second time. Other books, many that are clever, highly inventive, and often humorous don’t seem to work for me on a second or third reading. Perhaps most of the excitement from the first reading fades away because it came from experiencing something very new, like hearing a great joke, that doesn’t work later on because I already know the punchline.

As a case in point, my favorite novel in 2006 was Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics.  It was well received by critics and became a bestseller. Out of fresh reading materials, I looked forward to reading it again last week. I was surprised to find myself skimming. However, I did read it to the end because I’d forgotten many of the details of a rather tangled plot.

The protagonist, Blue van Meer, is enrolled in an upscale high school for her senior year after spending the rest of her school years enrolled in one or more schools every year because her widowed father ended up with university teaching positions throughout the country. At St. Gallway School, she seemingly inadvertently comes under the wing of an eccentric film teacher and the snobbish clique of students who worship her.

The book, which mimics the syllabus of a high school or college course, is clever, inventive, philosophical, and an outstanding example of stories where nothing is what it seems to be. Blue’s erudite father is very philosophical and very opinionated about the values of the unwashed masses. While this was interesting the first time through the book, such passages became a big of a swamp the second time through. Likewise, Blue speculates about a lot of things and, while exciting when I first read the book, were a bit tedious the second time.

I still highly recommend the novel and believe that readers who enjoy something different and highly creative will have fun reading it. It failed to keep my attention the second time through because its unique approach tended–in my view–to keep it from being compelling when that unique approach was a journey I’d taken before.

I admit that my feelings about re-reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics are highly subjective and probably tell you more about me than they tell you about the book. Other readers would look at the list of books that I re-read and say they either couldn’t get through them once, much less twice. With movies, some of which I’ve watched multiple times, I often find that the ambiance of such films brings me back to them in spite of the fact I know how they end. Perhaps avid readers feel the same way about the books they read multiple times.

Some people tell me they’ve read all the books in the Harry Potter series multiple times. I’ve read them all, but have little interest in re-reading them even though I’ve seen some of the movies more than once (and enjoyably so). I recently read the Scot’s language translation of the first Harry Potter book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane and thoroughly enjoyed it because–for a person of Scots ancestry–it was fun reading it in Scots. Could I read it again? Probably not because I enjoyed seeing a story I already knew through the eyes of the Scots translator. It can only be new once.

Likewise, Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics can only be new once, and after that an novel based on a clever approach didn’t work for me as read-it-again-and-again comfort food.

–Malcolm

Coming soon, “Lena,” the third novel in my Florida Folk Magic series.

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Re-reading a classic: ‘The House of the Spirits’

“One of the strongest impressions I took away from this book was that despite everything there is an optimism about the book’s ending. Throughout the book one has felt strongly the inevitability of events – that the blindness of the right-wing Esteban to the liberalism of his family, which one might argue is inherited from his wife’s parents, will lead to disaster, that Esteban’s casual abuse and rape of peasants will rebound on future generations of the family – and yet at the end Alba breaks the cycle of anger and hatred.” Zoe Brooks in Magical Realism

Books change each time we read them–unless we’re cursed with a photographic memory. Presumably, the words don’t re-arranged themselves on the pages, nor do heretofore unknown pages creep into the book with new characters and subplots from Central Casting.

The world is probably stranger than we know, so it’s safe to assume we change in between the readings. I’m not the same person I was when I first read The House of The Spirits in 1986 when my Bantam mass market paperback edition was published. Years have passed and governments and attitudes have come and gone since then.

Imagine the differences in first-reading perception of this 433-page saga between the rushed college student who has a few weeks to read it for a 400-level college course in order to compare and contrast it with the somewhat similar multi-generational magical realism sagas The Hummingbird’s Daughter and One Hundred Years of Solitude, and his/her twin reading the book on a rainy afternoon in a mountain cabin.

The first will be speed reading, taking notes, and writing in the margins. The second, (depending on whether the rain has interrupted planned outdoor activities or not) may be either relaxed or bored. They won’t see the same book. A third person who is reading the book leisurely in order to savor every line will come away with a very different memory of the story.

Like The Hummingbird’s Daughter (Mexican setting) and One Hundred Years of Solitude (South American setting), The House of Spirits (unspecified Latin American setting, but presumably Chile) includes peasant workers and their beliefs, strong patróns who control the people’s temporal destiny, harsh and potentially unstable governments, and leftist or other guerrillas seeking change.

To my mind, the magic in One Hundred Years of Solitude is more overt and widespread than the magic in the other two books, one with the young girl Teresita (in the very mystical “Hummingbird” based on  a real person) who can heal, the other with the family matriarch, Clara, who talks to spirits and moves objects without touching them. Before re-reading The House of the Spirits during the last several days, my memory of the book was that it contained a lot more magic than it does.  I remembered its gritty realism, but had blocked out the worst of it.

Had I taken a lie-detector test about the story in Allende’s debut novel several weeks ago, it would probably show (with no hint of fabrication) that my mind had mixed some of the characters and circumstances with those from her other books and that I recalled a much more ethereal tale than physically exists on the pages of my 31-year-old paperback. I don’t read books with the eye of a college English professor who also reads critical reviews and in-depth analyses of the books s/he teaches in class and/or writes papers about. So, if somebody asks me to tell them what the books I’ve read are about, my knowledge of the plots and characters will always be imperfect.

Somehow, books read by many an avid reader often run together over time unless the stories are constantly studied and compared with other books in the same genre. If there’s a blessing in a poor memory, it’s that in re-reading a book, the opportunity for fresh discoveries is all the greater for it. I suspect The House of the Spirits changed me more this time than it did in 1986, for now I am seeing more clearly a story that I had mythologized over the years. I am older, so I see the aging Clara with fresh but older eyes and, having come to terms to some extent with the amount of hatred and evil in the world, I see Alba’s hope at the end of her horrid torture as more authentic than when my anger–as a younger, more volatile man–at her treatment blinded me to her transformation.

Like absent old friends, old books usually aren’t the books we remember exactly. That’s the beauty of meeting up with them again and then going away all the wiser for it.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novels “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”