Friday, March 7, 2014

Why re-read favorite novels?

By Julie

This week, I've been doing something I never, ever, ever, ever do. Or at least not since I was kid, when I did it all the time because I didn't think I'd ever run out of time and there seemed to be a limited number of books.

I've been re-reading a favorite novel of 2013. (Yes, it was in our 2013 roundup!)

Earlier this week, I'd finished whatever book I was reading (I honestly can't remember what it was--scary, and that's going to bug me!), and was hunting around on my iPhone ebook apps, trying to decide on something new. But something else caught my eye. I decided I'd -- just for a few minutes -- go back and read part of Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. It's young adult fiction, which I hardly ever read, and that makes the next part even harder for me to believe.

Instead of spending just a few minutes on the first chapter, or scanning here and there, I got sucked right back into the story of Eleanor & Park, and I'm almost finished reading it for the second time.

And guess what else? It's taught me a few lessons about what makes a good story and why someone would want to read a story more than once.

I've received flattering emails from readers since Calling Me Home released last year, and sometimes the sender mentions they've read it more than once, or plan to buy it even when they checked it out from the library so they can re-read it when they want to. One record-setting reader told me she'd read it three times that week. I was blown away. I thought, "I never re-read books. Do people have time to do that? Why??!! There are ... SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME."

Finding myself in that situation this week, I had to analyze it. If you know me well, I'm sure you're not surprised. I like to analyze everything, sometimes to the complete annoyance of my family and friends, especially my long-suffering spouse, not to mention my wonderful literary agent.

Here's what I came up with.

Three reasons why you'd re-read a novel, and specifically why I have not struggled to re-read Eleanor & Park at all, even though I never, ever re-read books:
  1. You miss a lot the first time.
    Because I loved it so much, I read it so quickly the first time around that I don't remember lots of the details and the "what happens next." I know how it starts, the general gist of the story, certain details and scenarios, and the end, of course, but so many of the layers are new to me again! In fact, I'm not even sure I noticed some the first time around. And I actually couldn't wait to find out (remember) what happened next. Which leads to...
  2. Re-reading a favorite book is like spending time with a good friend.
    If you really click with that person, the more time you spend with them, the better you like them, and the more you want to read between the lines and learn their quirks and nuances and inner beauty.
  3. As a writer, or aspiring writer, it's important to learn from other authors.
    It's the best school there is. If you're not reading, you're missing the best lessons around--good or bad. And if you are studying a subject and are a good student, you are likely going over the details more than once to fully understand the lesson. Which leads to ...
Three things I learned re-reading Eleanor & Park:
  1. A good beginning is a good beginning, and can't be underestimated.If the reader is sucked in at the beginning of the novel, it's going to happen again the second time, and maybe even more times beyond that.  This is why agents often only want the first five or ten pages in a query, or the first 30-50 pages in a partial request. 
  2. Characterization is key.
    I mean, it seems obvious, but. I had such a clear picture of Eleanor and Park as people in my brain, having never seen anything of these two but the cute little drawing on the cover of the backs of their heads, and the words and details and dialogue Rainbow Rowell used to make these characters climb into my brain and live there. Forever.
  3. Finally, and most important:
    It's about the story, stupid.

    If you spent much time around me, you've heard me say this. As writers, we spend so much time analyzing (that dirty word again) WHY a story is commercially successful. I mean, sure marketing and publicity and other things can make a difference in how a novel makes an initial splash, but novels that sell year after year after year, or millions of copies? It's about the story, stupid. And sometimes as authors we shake our heads. Especially if we disagree. Especially if we think the writing is just plain bad. "WHY THIS STORY?" we say, gnashing our teeth and yanking ourselves bald. Right after I gnash and yank, I shrug. The story struck a nerve, somehow, somewhere, with a large enough group of people with big enough mouths they talked about it and couldn't stop talking about it and before you knew it, it was a publishing phenomenon. So, Eleanor & Park. Here's a Tweet I favorited, then retweeted not long ago.

    Why? Because ... Eleanor & Park!!!! That's why. Plainly, this story wormed its way into my conscious and it's not leaving. Eleanor and Park are real, the story is real. No matter that it's fiction. It's like the Velveteen Rabbit. Sure he was made of stuffing and velveteen, but he was real to the boy. In the same way, when a story is that good, it becomes real and people can't stop talking about it.
I'm so glad I took the time and jumped in when there were loads of other books I haven't read yet. I feel like there are many more lessons here. Maybe you know some of them.

Readers, why would you re-read a novel, and what have you learned doing that? Which novels have you read more than once?


  1. I used to reread books all the time. Now, I don't have time! too many great books to read and not enough time.

  2. I hear you! I am so happy I did take the plunge with this book. Finished it early this morning and loved every minute ... again!

  3. For all the reasons you cite and the plain fact that a good book is always pleasurable when re-read. My former students probably won't believe this, but I always re-read everything I taught, which means that in lower level courses, I'd read stories and novels multiple times over the course of a decade. (My husband, seeing me with a Faulkner novel in hand, asked, "Haven't you read that?") I always found something else that HAD to be asserted in the classroom no matter how often I had included the work in the syllabus.


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