Thursday, May 30, 2013

Tall Tales: Re-Reading is a Waste of Time

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The biggest debate among bibliophiles, second of course to movie adaptations of their favorite novel, is that of re-reading books. "I don't need to read it again; I've read it already" "But when you read it several times then you get the author's full meaning. "Why read it again when you already know it? There's too little time to read anyway, you shouldn't waste it with multiple readings of the same thing" "But these characters are like friends; if I never read it again it's like they've died."

Tell me you haven't heard one of these before. ;) Non-readers stand back and snicker as we debate over this important topic. What's the big deal? Read, re-read, so what? After all, there are multiple ways to do things.  True...but that would just be a little too easy, and it sounds dangerously like "Truth is truth to you". We must never ever say that a subject is individually determined unless we have properly hammered it out and find that the Bible sanctions relevance on it. Therefore, friends and fellow bibliophiles, today I thought it would be fun to discuss this fun debate from both angles.

Though let it be known from the beginning that I'm a staunch advocate of re-reading. If you were to look at my shelves, you would find a good many tattered, spineless old friends with pages ripped from wear and dog-eared corners. But I'll be fair, indeed I will.

Case #1 One and Done
I know several who do not re-read their favorite books. These friends are very conscious that their life is short, and they have limited time. They want to use it in the best possible way to advance the Kingdom of God. In other words, they don't want to account for a single wasted second. This is a laudable desire, and very important for every Christian to have. I wish that I had more of this mindset. These are the people you find who do not like to re-read. Re-reading wastes those precious seconds.

Another type of person you'll find who doesn't re-read is the person blessed with a phenomenal memory. For these people, re-reading a book equates to putting them on the electric chair for an hour or three. It's tormenting, and they raise a strong protest whenever they are called upon to do it. "Vain repetition" is a phrase you'll often hear from them.

Case #2 Again and Again
These people are probably where you'll draw your writers from. Not in every case, but most writers go over their work again and again and again. And a lot of times that strength comes from their former love of reading again and again and again. We love re-living the details: sometimes we read over one sentence that delights us a good 50 times, and then go around repeating it to ourselves all day. If I've ever received an email from you, I've probably done that at one point. And I do it all the time with books. These are the people who love their favorite stories and characters so much that they sit at the dinner table, and  three-quarters of the conversation is quotes. Applicable of course, to the subject at hand, but nonetheless borrowed from their favorite literature. These folks know enough from re-reading to write books worth of trivia and commentaries on behind-the-scenes facts.

And why? Because when we love something, we want to know it inside out as deeply as we can.

The Difference
There is a difference between the two, one which does not prove either method better than the other, but which is interesting to observe. A person aligning with Case #1 wants to read for specific knowledge. Once they've learned it, they're ready to move on. Why continue? A person in case #2 is not in it for merely the knowledge, but also for the experience along the way.  If they are both Christians, it can be described this way: one focuses solely on the goal; the other focuses on the journey along the way.

So which is better?

Case #1 Solution

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. --Ephesians 5:15

Those who do not re-read books often have a wise reason: to make the best use of their time. Time is not ours, but the Lord's, and it is running out. And in many cases they don't re-read because they are worried about wasting their time with earthly things.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. --Colossians 3:1-4

And that is a very good thing indeed.

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Case #2 Solution

But those who choose to re-read often do so for a double purpose: to remember, and deepen their knowledge. Jude 1:5 says "Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it..." God sent his prophets to remind his people of things they had forgotten. The idea of reminding was repeating information that these people already knew, so that they would not forget. We are a forgetful people, and we are told numerous times in Scripture to repeat, to remember, and to pass on what we remember to the next generation. Without exception, whether we like repetition or not.

And then there's the second reason: to know deeper. Sometimes this is for a more serious reason, or sometimes not. For instance, our goal in repeating a reading of a theology book may be to get a better grasp of Scripture, while our repetition of a certain story is simply to repeat the joy we gleaned from our first perusal of it. We see this idea of repetition in Scripture: the account of Jesus' death and many of his parables were repeated four times, and sometimes more. Genealogies are often included in at least two locations. We are certainly called to read Scripture over and over at the very least. And I would argue that if a book truly grows us in the knowledge of Christ, then it doesn't hurt to repeat that book either, for it reminds us of the personal applications to theological principles.

The Verdict
Very simply, there is none. We have only one indication that re-reading isn't good, and that's if the book itself isn't worth it. Whether from poor writing, or poor subject matter, or violation of biblical principles, those are of course reasons to discard a book. But I would tend to argue that if a book's not worth re-reading, then it's not worth reading in the first place.  And every excellent piece of art (speaking in book form) and every good truth, is worth reading and returning to again and again. Because if it is truly good, then the magic will never fade.

People on both sides of the debate have good reasons, and very legitimate ones. But neither should feel guilty for their position, and both should try to empathize with the other if they can. There is no biblical direction on re-reading, or not re-reading. Both sides must use their time wisely. Both must take time to remember and remind. After that, the rest is up to the individual.

Just one more point. There is nothing wrong with re-reading for the sake of spending time with old friends. Bibliophiles find friends in many different places, and sometimes the paper ones are almost as close as the real ones. Besides: our Lord does not forbid us for doing something simply for the joy of it. There are times when the delight of  reviving a old-time favorite is water to the soul, and taking time to refresh our spirits in Christ makes us better workers for the Kingdom than refusing rest for fear of wasting time.

Are you a one and done, or an over and over? And which reasons would you give to defend your viewpoint?

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Well, I'd probably be an over and over again reader. (That might be because I read like you ;) <3) "We love re-living the details: sometimes we read over one sentence that delights us a good 50 times, and then go around repeating it to ourselves all day." I LOVE doing that! It's so much fun to go over your favorite parts again. :D
    But sometimes I don't re-read as much because there are so many new books to read. That's rather a dilemma... :D
    Fun post! "Put the case, Pip" ;)
    Fun post!

    1. 'Tis a great dilemma, indeed it is. ;) I already have a stack of books clamoring to be re-read including *ahem* Lord of the Rings, which it has been a whole YEAR since I've finished. But how I am ever going to do that as well as Middlemarch and Ben-Hur I have not the faintest idea.

      Love and cuddles,

  2. I'm a re-reader when I don't remember something that I need to and when I have time. :P There are so many books that I will re-read someday. :D

    1. Sometimes I re-read portions rather than the entire thing. :D It helps when you don't have time, that's for sure. But time is definitely a big factor in the equation. ;)

  3. I guess don't think too much about this - but really, any book that I love, I will most definitely reread eventually (if not re-re-re-re read!!!)... and I personally don't see it as a waste-of-time because if it is wholesome, and 'praise-worthy' and virtuous - there is much to be received from a second reading than would normally from a first read (when you are trying to discover the climax of a plot or the focus of a certain topic).

    And while there are many, many, many books to be read that are new (especially books on theology/faith) my little collection of fiction are probably among the most wholesome/inspiring and best.

    1. I have read some of my favorites a good seven times, at least, and hope to read them many more throughout my life as the Lord gives me days. :D

      I too have found the same thing with a second reading. For instance, some books--like Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone" or Davis Bunn's "Book of Hours"--I found quite disturbing from a Christian perspective the second time through, when I wasn't so intent on trying to guess the plot and could focus more on the characters' morals.

      Also, I have discovered much richer depth in many of my favorites with a second time through. It's definitely worth it!

  4. Fun post! I totally agree. But I'd add one thing, and that would be my deep suspicion of the folks who have only read 5 books, but they've read them 1,000 times. There's a kind of re-reading which evidences an unhealthy escapism quite different to, "This is such a good book that I want to read it at regular intervals for the rest of my life." :)

    1. Yes, indeed. Hadn't thought of that really, and I'm not sure I've met anyone who has done this, but they're out there.

      I have quite a horror of escapism, and try to avoid it when at all possible, but I'm sure I too slip into it more than I would like to think. ;)

    2. Bear in mind that the moral dimension of escapism depends on what is being escaped :). Escaping the modernist rationalist materialist dungeon we were born in is pretty important. It's escapism that tries to escape eternal beauty, goodness, and truth that is wrong.


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