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The Magic Re-reading Formula

Do books you have previously read call to you? Or do you just want to keep discovering new books and new authors?

Today I am considering the best good balance between re-reads and reading new books because, barring scientific miracles, we all have a limited lifespan before we shuffle off our mortal coil and this means we have to be selective in the things we choose to do – which includes what we read.

Whenever I read a new book, I am looking longingly at my old favourites, and whenever I re-read an old favourite, I feel guilty for not reading something new. For me there are four reasons to re-read:

1. Comfort reading

This is where you re-read something that you know will give you a guaranteed feeling. For me this is any of my top three books – Lord of the Rings, The Three Musketeers or Cider House Rules, plus the first three Harry Potter books. As long as I do not re-read them too often I will continue to get a lovely buzz from them. I know the narrative voice will pull me in, the atmosphere will surround me, the plot engage me, and the characters all be wonderfully familiar to me.

I have one other book that gives me a great lift too, often if I’m feeling a little down, it always brings me round. It’s called Zigzag Street and is by Australian author Nick Earls. It’s a simple story of a guy getting over a relationship break up, and is full of humour and hilarious situations. It does help to know a little about Australian culture, such as who Nick Cave is, but it’s brilliant even without that. It’s my ultimate feel good book and makes me laugh out loud every time.

2. Guaranteed quality

This is where you know it's going to be good. Often classics like the stack in the picture. Every one a winner. Gaskell, Bronte, Austen, Stendhal, Cervantes, Hugo, Dostoyevsky. You know they’re good not only because the world says so, but because you’ve read them before. And many times when you re-read them you notice something new. Watch out though - you could ruin the memory of a book you liked just as easily. I had a book in my top ten, Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier, and upon re-reading, it wasn’t nearly as good as I remembered. So tread cautiously. Sometimes a good, if false, memory is better than a true but negative reality.

3. Forgetfulness

This is where you know you’ve read a book but you can't remember a single thing about it. For me this is the likes of The Scarlet and the Black or The Brothers Karamazov. Not that you have to remember everything. I think what you remember about a book a while after you’ve read it is one of three things: characters, plot or atmosphere/mood/spirit. If it’s the latter then there’s a fair chance that you won’t remember much detail. Re-reading in this vein is much like reading a new book, with the odd echo of remembrance.

4. Because you’ve changed

This is where I’m re-reading a book maybe twenty or thirty years after I first read it. The fact is I'm a different person now to who I was then. I might like a book now that I didn’t like then. My consciousness has grown, as has my intelligence. I’m more open-minded, more tolerant and more accepting. This happened with Virginia Woolf. I really didn’t like her writing when I was younger. I resisted it and fought against it. This time, I read The Lighthouse and just let it wash over me, and it is of course oh so beautiful. I read Mrs Dalloway and let it sparkle. I even let The Waves work its ethereal magic on me. It’s been a bit of a year of Woolf – I’ve also read Night and Day, Orlando and A Writer’s Diary.

But one needs to look forward too. What if, amidst the re-reading you decided not to read something different, let’s call it “X book”. X book would have become your favourite book and changed your life. I’ve discovered so many amazing new (to me) authors this year – Ali Smith, Rose Tremain, Pat Barker, Stephen Crane, Nancy Mitford, Alice Walker, Vera Brittain, and also the authors of my three favourite reads in 2018:

  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

  • My Antonia, by Willa Cather

I would not want to have missed out on any of those. Also, I don’t want to just sit in my comfort zone re-reading books I already know. I want to keep challenging myself and going forward with a spirit of discovery. How to balance things then?

Well, I'm so nerdy I thought it would be fun to devise a re-read formula. A way of balancing new reads with re-reads that takes into account how old you are and how many books you read each year. I reckon you should read about one book for every ten you read, plus two more for each decade you are above 20. Expressed as a formula it looks something like this:


i.e. Re-reads = (Books read per year divided by 10) + (Number of Decades over age twenty times two)

So for me in 2018, reading eighty books a year and being fifty years old, that would make 14.5 re-reads and 70 new books out of 85 books. Feels about right. This year I read 85 books and of those 15 were rereads. They were:

1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

2. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

3. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

4. Matilda by Roald Dahl

5. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

6. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

8. The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

9. Asterix the Gaul by Goscinny and Uderzo

10. The Odyssey by Homer

11. Dracula by Bram Stoker

12. A Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

13. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

14. Mike and Psmith by PG Wodehouse

15. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Why don’t you work out how many re-reads you should have done according to this formula, and how many you actually did – and comment below.

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