When Books Don’t Live Up To Re-Reading

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Way back in May 2000, I discovered a tattered copy of Debt of Honor by Tom Clancy in The Iliad Bookshop–one of my all-time favorite bookstores. The back copy of the book interested me, and so I bought the used paperback, took it home, and began reading. I was immediately gripped by the story. I tore through that roughly 1,000-page book in the space of week. And because it ended in a cliff-hanger, I went on to read the even longer Executive Orders. I remember really enjoying those book.

A few days ago, I pulled out Debt of Honor as I floundered about trying to figure out what to read next. Maybe returning to an old book that I enjoyed would be just thing I needed. I started to read it–I didn’t remember much of it more than 20 years later so it sort of seemed new to me. At the same time, what was such an enjoyable story for me 20 years ago was suddenly marred by what I could only think of as bad writing. The writing was so bad this second time around that I couldn’t take it. I gave up on the book, despite enjoying the story.

It got me wondering how many books I’ve read that, upon re-reading, wouldn’t live up to that first time. I remember a few years back trying to re-read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. When I first read that book 25 years ago, it instantly became my favorite novel. But until a few years ago, I never tried reading it again. When I did, I found that while the writing was wonderful, the story flagged for me, and lost its wind about halfway through. I gave up on the re-read.

There are books I remember reading that really wowed me. I remember reading Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton a few years before the film came out and I really enjoyed that book. I remember reading Jumper by Steven Gould and loving that book, too. But I wonder, given my experience, if I would enjoy them a second time? My gut tells me that I would not–at least not as much as the first time.

That’s not the case with all books I’ve read before. I’ve read 11/22/63 by Stephen King 7 times and each time I think it gets better. I find the same to be true to It by Stephen King. I’ve read One Man’s Meat by E. B. White 4 times and I look forward to each time I read it, delighted by how good it is, and never let down by it so far. I’ve read Isaac Asimov’s entire Foundation series at least 5 times–but the last time I read it was 16 years ago and I have this feeling that if I read it again, I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I used to.

What is it that makes me enjoy re-reading some books that I loved, and dislike others that I loved? In both cases, I’ve often read a lot more and much more widely than I had the first time I read a book. So I bring to subsequent readings all that I have read and learned since. If I thought a book was well-written, and coming to discover far better writing over the course of subsequent decades, than what I think of as good writing today is different from what it used to be. Does that mean that the books that I can re-read and enjoy stand the test of time, and all of the reading I have done since? Or is there something else at play?

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