Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Reanimation, Or Not

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For a long time I took part on an Internet forum called Rec.Arts.Mystery.   I suppose that, technically, I never stopped, since I still check in now and then, even if I don’t contribute much.

RAM was an interesting place for a number of reasons, but the most important was in the fact that it introduced me to a kind of reader I didn’t know existed.

My guess is that I read the way most of you say you do–a lot, all the time, more often than I breathe, and since I was a child.

In fact, I can’t remember learning to read.  I don’t think anybody actually taught me.  I remember the first time I knew that I could read, and everybody else knew it, too. 

We were on a visit to Washington, D.C., to visit my father’s sister.  My mother was pregnant, which means I had to be no older than two years and ten months old.  My Aunt Mary bought me a Little Golden Book about a platypus, and while the grown ups were sitting around talking, I parked myself in a chair and read it through, out loud.

I’d never seen the book before, so I couldn’t have been memorizing it–and they all knew  that.  They proceeded to get very excited about me and the book and to make a big fuss about it, and I sat there wondering what they were doing.

My mother was making a baby.  This seemed to me to be of considerably more importance than reading, which I was pretty sure “everybody” could do anyway.

Being able to “read before you were three” was a big deal when I was growing up, a marker that you were some kind of supergenius.

(Wyle E. Coyote, Sooo-per Genius.)

For a long time the reading thing defined me for most of the adults in my life, and given the way I read, the impression got stronger over time.

But even at the beginning, I did something I still do, and that I think most of the people who read this blog do, and most of the people who read my books do.

I reread things.  Often. 

If I found a book I really loved, I read it again, and sometimes again and again and again.

When I started to read “difficult” things, I reread them to make sure I understood them.

(If there’s life after death, I’m going to have to ask my father what he was thinking, giving me Beyond Good and Evil when I was twelve.)

But from the beginning, I reread even “easy” books if I liked them enough.  I reread the first book I was ever allowed to choose and buy on my own–The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, number 25 in the Nancy Drew Series–about forty times before my parents found a few more for me.

RAM was the first time in my life I ever met readers who did not reread things, and readers–usually the same ones who didn’t reread–who would stop reading a novel if it got at all difficult or asked them to know something.

I think I’m putting that last thing badly.

I tend to like things that stretch my mind.  I get an almost physical sensation when my mind is actually working, and it’s a pleasurable sensation, too.   I associate this feeling so completely with reading that when I want to let my mind go, I tend to opt for television or “variety puzzles.”  Variety puzzles–match-ups, escalators, syllacrostics–are the only way I get to sleep at night, and the only way I manage to make it through airplane trips.

Somebody explain to me how I spent fifteen years of my life damn near continuously on airplanes.

Anyway, RAM was the first place I had readers tell me that they would never reread a book, once they’d read it they knew how it went, and that they would never read a book that demanded that they learn something.

Now, I have a certain amount of sympathy–more than a certain amount–for people who don’t want their books to be “preachy.”  I don’t want mine to be preachy, either, unless I’m deliberately reading a book meant to preach (Godless, What’s the Matter with Kansas).

But there’s a difference between that kind of thing and rejecting a book because, for instance, I can’t understand it until I look up a few terms in the dictionary, or Google the history of art in Sienna. 

But the rereading thing just floored me. 

And it floored me even more because I was pretty sure that the people rejecting the idea didn’t reject the idea of seeing a movie more than once, or a television show.

Really first rate books almost have to be reread.  Nobody is going to catch everything going on in them the first time.

That is as true of really good mysteries, for me–I reread The Murder of Roger Ackroyd at least in part to see how the trick was done. 

And some books I just read over and over and over again.  These are not necessarily the books I would define as “best” on any technical level, nor are they necessarily classics, although some are.   They are, mostly, just books that live with me.  They change over time.

My first reaction to hearing people talk about reading that way–don’t reread, don’t bother with anything that makes any demands on you–was to wonder why these people were reading at all.  I mean, let’s fact it.  If you want something entirely superficial and easy, cable television is full of stupid people shows and the Internet is full of cats.

The simple fact that reading is reading means that it takes more effort at base than sitting passively looking at a screen.

My second reaction was to wonder what exactly it was these people got out of books. 

I’m not talking about taste here.  That’s eclectic enough.  I mean what was the nature of the satisfaction they took in reading–what did books give them that made them want to read?

That’s the kind of question I would have assumed–before I met these people–had a self-evident answer. 

But apparently not.

Written by janeh

June 22nd, 2011 at 6:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Reanimation, Or Not'

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  1. What books give me that make me want to read is well-managed information and orderly views of human beings and their behavior. Sometimes I read your books for the mystery. Sometimes I read and reread them because you have created human beings I am pleased to know. Same deal applies to your blog. Thank you.


    22 Jun 11 at 10:49 am

  2. Two kinds of readers. I don’t think the division is read once/read again.

    I think the real division is consumers of books versus participants in reading. A consumer always wants variety, new input, and no real requirement for effort on their part. They see books as a longer version of magazine articles, momentary occupation of their mind in much the same way that TV or movies occupy that space. They don’t think there’s anything more to be gotten from the story because they got so little from it in the first place.

    Participants experience books in an entirely different way. Reading actually creates a new reality in our heads. I can’t tell you the number of times my mother used to yell at me because she’d been calling my name for 15 minutes and I literally hadn’t heard her. The experience of reality a book creates can and does change over time as we change, mature, learn and become new selves.

    I not only re-read books, I classify my books by how often I feel it necessary (or possible) to re-read them. For example, my James Clavell I think are good for once every 5-8 years. Some of my most favorites, Barbara Hambly, Spider Robinson, John Varley, Heinlein, I can read once a year. Most mysteries & similar books I re-read every two to five years, like Robert Crais, Thomas Perry, Dana Stabenow.

    I often think that what book-consumers get out of reading is some time they don’t have to be alone in their heads. If they’re not filling up that space with music, TV, pointless and annoying cell-phone conversations, books will do. For them, reading doesn’t provoke thought, it prevents it. Scary, huh?


    22 Jun 11 at 1:17 pm

  3. Excellent thought, Lymaree. I agree with this – I remember some of the same discussions on RAM that Jane is referring to – people who actually STOPPED reading a book and got rid of it because someone posted a spoiler. It astounded me then and it still does.

    Don’t you read for the writing, for the atmosphere, because you want to visit the characters? I have a whole list of books that I re-read. Like you, Lymaree, some I may only re-read every ten years or so, but others I’ll revisit every year or two.

    I agree about the mindless entertainment aspect too. That’s got to be what’s driving all the people who read …. well, no need to be nasty. But there are so many bestsellers that have no substance that your explanation rings completely true to me.


    22 Jun 11 at 1:26 pm

  4. Writing, characters, setting, all of those I enjoy multiple times. Sometimes I re-read because the first time through the thrill of the story drew me along so fast I know I missed things. I want to enjoy and savor without that suspense of WHAT HAPPENS??!!?? the second time. I have been known to read a book twice in a row when that happens to me. I read too damn fast sometimes.

    There are times when reading a book or a series repeatedly reveals themes, concepts and deeper understanding that no single reading possibly could.


    22 Jun 11 at 3:20 pm

  5. I’d agree. Most of the “read once” crowd seem to be reading as they would watch TV or movies: strictly for story and now they know the story. And of course if you’re reading strictly to find out how it ends, and someone tells you..

    I think it’s worth noting that some TV and movies repay re-viewing and close attention–and that not all books do. There is the question of how much the creator put into a work, as well as how closely the reader or viewer is paying attention. There is a sense in which the person reading three Barbara Cartlands a week is not on my “side” for want of a better term, and the person who watches CASABLANCA or THE LION IN WINTER at least once a year may well be.

    I suppose I divide books four ways: those I regret wasting time with, the ones where one reading was sufficient, the one I want to revisit from time to time–and the ones which, when I revisit, aren’t the same books they were five or ten years before. But I think you could divide DVDs the same way.

    I would have rated WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS as bad analysis. I haven’t finished GODLESS, but it looks similar. They want to tell me what’s true, but they don’t want to provide the important facts and good tight reasoning.
    “Preachy” would be Heinlein, especially later Heinlein, Ayn Rand, George Chesbro, Mack Reynolds or, in some contexts Isaac Asimov–a tendency to arrange the universe so that the people who agree with the author are virtuous in other respects, while those who disagree are villains or fools–and of course, in a novel you can simply make a particular agenda produce your desired results–hence LOOKING BACKWARD, UTOPIA and a host of other atrocities. To me, the preachy author isn’t the one who says “X is true,” but the one who says “You ought to do or think X.” (Mind you, I have Heinlein, Rand and Chesbro on the shelves. An author may have faults and still have virtues.)


    22 Jun 11 at 3:52 pm

  6. I’ve read my share of the “mindless entertainment” books. They get read once and then donated to the public library.

    My keep and reread books tend to be historical novels such as Mary Renault’s Greece books or the Hornblower novels about naval warfare at the end or the 18th century.

    I avoid politics but have been reading some “popular” science books. Popular in the sense of no math but containing a lot of modern physios. That is certainly a matter of personal taste!


    22 Jun 11 at 6:59 pm

  7. I’m a serial re-reader, and proud of it. One of the things I liked about RAM (and this blog) is that everyone has a different take on a particular book and that sends me to read the book again. I can definitely understand people who cannot finish a book, or who cannot even get beyond the first 50 pages or so. In RAM we called these “wall books” but obviously not everyone shared the same view or we’d never have started reading them in the first place. Don DeLillo is one such author for me. I just cannot bring myself to read him after I utterly despised the first book of his that I tried.

    As for “preaching”, it depends on how it’s done. I have no problem with authors who deal with hot political issues and who take a point of view on those issues, even when I disagree with them. What annoys me beyond all reason is the sort of thing that Ruth Rendell does repeatedly – incessantly, even – and that is to assume that all right-thinking people will agree with her point of view on any given issue and then simply the question. Fortunately, Rendell is so good that I such annoyances are trivial in the broader totality of her work.

    Nice to see another Clavell fan here, Lymaree. :-)


    23 Jun 11 at 9:53 am

  8. Also, re-reading makes book selection for my shelves easy. I don’t store books I don’t intend to re-read. Those I can get out of the library and return. Ones by favorite authors make themselves at home on my shelves for Next Time. I still have shelves that are too full, but not as bad as if I tried to buy and/or keep everything I read.


    23 Jun 11 at 1:47 pm

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