5 Advantages of Re-Reading

I have probably over 2,500 books in my house. Something around 1,500 of them are on the shelves my husband built for me in my office. And most of those books I’ve read—many of them multiple times.

I really, really, really love reading.

Here’s how to get the most out of it:

  1. Pleasure

    Read once for sheer pleasure. That’s the joy of every serious reader.

  2. Structure

    Then, right away, skim once more for structure.

    Find the 1/2, 1/4, and 3/4 marks and jot down notes on what occurs there or in the immediate vicinity. Find the 1/3 and 2/3 marks and do the same. Then find the 1/8 and 7/8 marks and the 1/6 and 5/6 marks—one of those pairs is the pair of lintels holding this entire novel up.

    You will be absolutely astounded to discover how concretely a well-written novel is structured. The Hook ends just about 1/8-1/6 of the way in. The ‘spin’ at the end of Act I occurs around either the 1/4 or the 1/3 mark. The shift of focus from Hook to Climax occurs at the halfway mark. The ‘spin’ at the end of Act II occurs around either the 2/3 or the 3/4 mark. And the beginning of the end—the build-up to the Climax—starts just about 1/8-1/6 of the way from the last page, 5/6-7/8 of the way in.

    While you’re at it, check out the 1/5, 2/5, 3/5, and 4/5 marks. Find out exactly what this author had in mind.

    It’ll give you chills when you see just how deftly you’ve been lead.

  3. Character

    Could you ever get tired of hanging out with your favorite characters? That’s why they exist—to add depth and texture to your life.

    When you re-read for character, you don’t have to read chronologically. Browse for your favorite scenes. Stumble accidentally on ones you loved but forgot about. Let the novel fall open in your lap and pick up reading wherever it catches your eye.

    Sink all the way into those scenes, soaking up the dozens of little, telling details with which the author has sketched these people for you. Finger them like beads. Copy out your favorite sentences.

    “In vain I have struggled. It will not do. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” That line has been a part of my internal world since I was twelve years old. The marvelous, adroit encapsulation of Darcy’s dignity, pomposity, internal struggle, and genuine, simple passion are all there.

    Memorize your favorite sentences in which your favorite characters come fully to life, and you will be richly rewarded later when your own sentences about your own characters roll out of you in similar detail and rhythm.

  4. Layering

    Nobody ever gets everything there is out of a single reading of a great novel. Read lightly for pleasure and then read the whole thing through again for the deeper meanings. . .consciously, slowly, luxuriously, paying attention to every little development as it unfolds. Follow closely the trajectory of scenes this author has created. Notice how each scene leads inevitably to the next, how they build on each other, shaping the characters and aiming them where they need to go. Notice what’s essential. Notice what the author left out.

    The obvious layers of the story sink into your subconscious as the subtle layers rise to the surface.

    Tom Stoppard said, “Talking to intelligent grad students about one’s own work is like getting caught in customs. ‘Yes, officer, I can see it there in my bags, but I honestly do not remember packing it.'”

    Find even those layers that came out of the author without their knowledge.

  5. Epiphany

    And realize, with the greatest works, why they’re great: because they are packed in all directions with not just a single, high-flying, breath-taking epiphany off the end of the novel, but with hundreds of wonderful, indirect little epiphanies all the way.

    Just yesterday I paused in an early chapter of Nicolas Freeling’s Criminal Conversation at the lovely, hilarious line, “‘There are times, Chief Inspector, when I should like to take a fast run of about a hundred yards at you doing up your shoelace.'”

    A few chapters later, casual commentary on police interrogation technique leaped out at me as advice on great writing:

    “The well-known raid technique: the amiable little domestic pleasantry and the bomb in the same breath. . .After the flash, the burn cream.”

    And I laughed out loud at the 1960s London slang, “fearfully twee!”

Oh, the utter joy of fiction. You’d better believe—somewhere, sometime, somehow—somebody in one of my novels is going to one day say, “How fearfully twee!”

22 thoughts on “5 Advantages of Re-Reading

  1. Ah, I’m so excited to do this thorough re-read of some of my favorites! I’ve been very into re-reading all year – already read several books three times – but haven’t taken notice of all the elements you mention here. Basically I’ve just marveled at how each book managed to evoke particular emotions and how they worked the climax. Now I see I could do so much more!

    I’m on it.

    1. Victoria says:

      She’s like a heat-seeking missile. . .

  2. Fantastic post Victoria! I use index cards as my bookmarks and when I come upon a sentence I like, I’ll write it down, or if there’s a great deal of suspense in a certain scene I’ll note that too – what pages, why I need to go back to it, etc. This practice has helped me immensely in studying how I want to write, and, I believe, has improved my craft overall.

    Even better is going through all the cards at the same time and using all those sentences together to create a flash piece, or some such, just for the fun of it, (revising the sentences to use different adjectives or analagies, what have you).

    And you are so right, it’s amazing what we can learn by deconstructing a story.

    1. Victoria says:

      Holy cow, Deanna, index cards as bookmarkers is brilliant. I usually just keep my trusty clipboard by my elbow. Then I’m always scrambling to find a clean page.

  3. ‘Fearfully twee?’ We say that all the time. Brilliant idea for a post – and I love the Stoppard quote.

    1. Victoria says:

      I’m practicing now for when we see you in October. “Fearfully twee. Fearfully twee. Fearfully twee.” It is my new favorite term.

      1. Victoria says:

        And I have no idea what it means, Jeffrey.

  4. --Deb says:

    And let’s not forget–for the sheer number of things you MISS the first time around because you don’t know what’s coming. Foreshadowing is a wonderful thing, but if you don’t know what it’s foreshadowing, you’re going to miss it. I love watching the pieces of a story fall together when I know what the final shape and structure are going to be. It’s kind of like knitting that way, actually…

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, yes, Deb. Because when a novel is written properly you’re all but ripping those pages out in your excitement to get to the Climax! You miss all kinds of great stuff, so when you re-read it’s almost like reading a new book.

      Teach me cable-stitching, and I’ll write you a blog post about cable-stitching fiction. 🙂

      1. --Deb says:

        I would be HAPPY to teach you cable-stitching, but since we’re on opposite coasts, that could be tricky. How often do you get to the NY/NJ area??

        But, really cabling is a perfect description for interwoven, twisting themes for writing. All part of the same fabric, but winding around and making it more interesting, more layered … And it looks almost impossibly intricate once it’s finished, but actually knitting it? One row, one step at a time!

  5. Jeffrey Russell says:

    Re-reading favorite parts of favorite books really is a treat, isn’t?

    Fearfully twee? That does sound like a good phrase! Wish I knew what it meant…

    Here’s something else I wish I knew… What do you mean by “The ’spin’ at the end of Act I?”

    1. Victoria says:

      Jeffrey. Ahem. Have you not read my book?

      Actually, I probably neglected to refer to it as ‘spin’ in my book. That’s Syd Field’s term for the climax at the ends of Acts I and II (the climaxes of Conflict #1 and Conflict #3). He explains in his canonical work, Screenplay, how it’s necessary for the story to take a sudden unexpected shift in direction at those points. I believe in my book I referred to it as dominoes veering unexpectedly around corners.

      1. Jeffrey Russell says:

        Of course I read the book, Victoria. And I still do. I was just making sure I understood correctly. 🙂

        You still didn’t say what ‘fearfully twee’ means…

        1. Victoria says:

          Not a clue, Jeffrey. Not a clue.

  6. How true this is, and I hadn’t realized it.

    Books I love go on a mental list and I reread them every so often – but little did I know this was more than self-indulgence, that I was actually improving my writing skills at the same time.

    (Can I admit I enjoy reading my own books, or is that totally infra dig?)

    1. Victoria says:

      We all write the books we most long to read.

  7. Terrific stuff as always, Victoria! I especially like #1; I’ve never thought about breaking a novel down in that way, but I think I’ll be paying more attention to my own work that way in the future. It makes sense, really: math is everywhere, whether we English major/literature nerds like it or not. 🙂

    1. Victoria says:

      You will be amazed. Concrete structure—it was there all along.

  8. Tamara says:

    Re-reading my favorite books is one of my favorite things 🙂 I’ve even been surprised when re-encountering an element I had forgotten. Some elements really stand out and become ‘the book’ for me. It’s interesting to see that they are surrounded by other moments I might not have appreciated fully the first time.

    1. Victoria says:

      Yes, those hidden wonders are some of the greatest riches of the works we love best! And they really teach us just how much goes into those beloved books that we might have assumed, upon first reading, where not really all that different from our own, ahem, hopeful first drafts. 🙂

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