Old Friends -or- The Same Book Over and Over Again

The "double-reading" selfportraitWhen I was a kid I read and re-read the same handful of books. The complete works of Douglas Adams were in heavy rotation. Hitchhiker’s Guide, sure, but I also read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency until the cover fell off. I also picked up Roald Dahl over and over again. I remember reading The Witches most often, despite the fact that when I tried to watch the movie version it terrified the hell out of me. (The girl stuck in the painting? Nightmare fuel.) Those are the books that stand out in my mind, but I’m sure there were others.

This habit didn’t stick with me, though; as I grew older, I got out of the habit of re-reading books. Part of it may have been that as I had more disposable income (and a car), I could pretty much always get my hands on something new to read, so I no longer felt the need to go back to familiar old books. I certainly have plenty of new books to read now, so It’s rare that I’m willing to make the time to re-read something, even if it was years ago.

However, whenever I talk to people who are regular readers, re-reading books seems like a fairly common pastime. Based purely on anecdotal evidence, I get the impression that re-readers are far more common than folks like me who only tend to read books once before moving on. The simple explanation for a lot of the people I’ve talked to is that they like re-reading books because it’s comfortable. Sure, they might know what happens in the story, but reading it again is like visiting old friends or a familiar place. I’ve never been drawn to re-read books out of comfort, but I can understand the appeal.

I can also definitely see the value in re-reading books like Catcher in The Rye at different points in my life. That book meant something different for me when I was in high school than it did when I was in college, and I’m about due for a third reading. I’ve also re-read books for purely practical reasons, such as when I had to read A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings for a second time because I was completely lost when I tried to start reading A Storm of Swords.

Lately I’ve been considering going back and picking up books and/or series from my childhood and reading them again just to get a new perspective. Despite reading Hitchhiker’s Guide a dozen times, I don’t remember too much about it, so reading it again now would be a revelation. I am a little hesitant, though. Sometimes the things we love in childhood don’t stand up to scrutiny when we return to them as adults.

I did actually start a Harry Potter re-read last year – this time listening to the audiobooks – but I only made it through the first two books before I got distracted by other things to read. I’ll finish the series eventually, but once I do, I want to take a crack at some other iconic authors from my childhood. I’m also seriously considering picking up some of the books ruined by my high school English classes. The Great Gatsby got it the worst, but I might also take another crack at A Tale of Two Cities. Not sure if The Scarlet Letter is worth a third read, though.

Ultimately, however, I don’t think I’ll ever be a re-reader by nature. I’m always looking forward to the next new book in line. I only pick up books I’ve already read by conscious choice… or if they were so unmemorable that I completely forgot about reading them (which has happened before). That said, I think I will be making a conscious effort to dive back into some past reads over the course of the next year, just to see what I may have missed back then.

Young Adult: Just Another “Dumbed-Down” Genre

Harry PotterRecently while thoroughly frittering away an evening online, I decided to respond to a commenter who was doing a bit of trolling with some admittedly low-hanging fruit. The thread was over at io9, which actually has what I consider the rare comments section worth reading, and it was on their post about essential SF&F reads of 2013 (my own list is in the pipeline!).

The commenter’s complaint was related to the inclusion of a number of young adult books in the list. As they saw it this was clear proof of “a decline in reading comprehension and vocabulary”. Yes, I should know better than to try and respond to that, but I couldn’t help myself. I was of course tempted to point out the irony of complaining about a “dumbed-down” genre on a post (and site) devoted to science fiction and fantasy, but I reserved that bit of snark for Twitter instead.

Unfortunately, this kind of opinion doesn’t just appear in comments sections, it’s also propagated by professional critics, as my friend Kiersi noted in her recent discussion of criticism directed at the “new adult” genre. This particular criticism seems to rely largely on the assumption that young adult writers aren’t doing anything but churning out simplistic hack-job trilogies intended for a quick turnaround as the next summer blockbuster. That just because a book is intended for teens means it can’t or won’t address weighty themes. Or that the writing will be childish and simplistic.

The Catcher in the RyeWhen did simplicity and readability become such a crime? Hemingway would surely disagree. The Catcher in the Rye – possibly the ultimate prototypical young adult novel – stands the test of time because the writing is simple, straightforward and clean. Holden thinks and talks like a teenager of his time, and if that book was published today, it would be marketed as young adult, no question about it.

I’d also argue that some of the best writing I’ve read recently was in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I thought the book had some pacing issues near the end, but Taylor’s prose was so drop-dead gorgeous that I still consider the book a five-star read. In fact, it easily outshone the writing in some of the “adult” books I’ve read recently.

The thing I find strangest about the argument against reading young adult fiction is that its proponents seem to believe there isn’t inherent value in reading just for the sake of it. The only response I received from the comment’s originator was a petulant dismissal of my “‘at least they’re reading something’ argument”. It boggles the mind.

The Bad BeginningSee, I know from personal experience that reading lots of young adult fiction is part of what helped me get back in the habit of reading in general. A few years ago, when I first set a goal to read 52 books in 52 weeks, some of the very first books I read were A Series of Unfortunate Events, which aren’t even young adult books because they’re pitched at children, not teenagers. I also listened to a lot of audiobooks, which I’m sure is another literary no-no (Tim Curry reads the Unfortunate Events books, which are marvelous). However, once I was in the swing of things, I decided it was time to challenge myself, and picked up the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo.

I don’t think I would have been mentally prepared to tackle a 1400+ page classic novel if I hadn’t already reminded myself that reading is fun, and I’m sure my experience isn’t unique. I feel certain that there are people who got back into the habit of reading thanks to Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, or some other YA series, and once they remembered how much fun it was to read, they decided to keep doing it. Maybe they only read YA books now, but who cares? How can reading for fun ever be a bad thing? I don’t care what you’re reading as long as you just keep doing it.

People who argue otherwise are assholes.

That’s all I’ve got to say about that.