One thing that has always struck me is that it’s evidently rare it is to re-read a book. Or at least it seems to be among the general populace. (Sadly, for those of us who regularly do read, we all have a feeling for how rare reading is in general). This came to light recently when someone asked what I was reading and I answered that I was re-reading Robert Heinlein’s novel ‘Friday’ – and the response was “Why? I never read the same book twice.” That got me to thinking — why do I re-read books, especially when there is so much out there that I haven’t read yet?
I think the answer is two-fold. First, it just sometimes happens that I’d rather read a book that I know I will enjoy but maybe just haven’t read in awhile. Secondly, and this is a point I’m unsure how widely spread it is, I re-read books to help program my brain. That makes it sounds probably more exciting than it is, but consider this:
- Everything we do, from playing video games, to watching television, surfing the web, and yes – even reading, changes the fundamental structures in the brain.
- Those changes are sometimes expected (e.g. watching lots of television and shorter attention spans) and sometimes unexpected (e.g. regions of the brain involved in decision making are larger in frequent gamers)
- The so-called “power of positive” thinking may have some basis in truth – and the reverse is also true, as studies have shown focused on depression
You might see where I’m going with this — it was one of the first concepts in programming: GIGO (Garabage In, Garbage Out) or it also could be summarized as “You are what you eat” (or in this case “consume”). There’s even a cool term, neuroplasticity, that describes how our brains continue to evolve and change as we age and based on what we do with our squishy gray matter.
When I was a kid, my parents had a rule when we went to the library (which was often — probably explains a lot, huh?). It was “For every three ‘fun’ books you get, you have to get at least one ‘serious’ book.” Now, the serious book could be anything – history, how-to, or as usually happened — science. And so I grew up not just reading, but reading to learn. I tore through biographies, which were strangely one of my favorites. I still have fond memories of some children’s books about Alexander the Great, Ty Cobb, and Teddy Roosevelt. And I mixed that reading in with the “fun” stuff – Asimov, Poe, Heinlein, Tolkien, et al. Now here’s the important thing — I never really stopped with that approach. I really should thank my parents, as whether intentionally or not, they passed along the idea of structure and discipline in regards to what I “fed” my brain.
As I got older, I found myself coming back to certain books when I was feeling a certain way. Feeling a little fed up with life in general? Well, then I’d reach for Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series (Life. Don’t talk to me about life. — Marvin). Maybe a little frustrated with people in general? Take two doses of Mark Twain and call me in the morning (Twain captured people as they really are better than almost anyone before or since). Want to spark the ol’ creative juices? Here’s one William Gibson, one Bruce Sterling, and if my arms aren’t too tired to lift it, throw in a Neal Stephenson (Katana optional). And it’s really more book-specific, rather than tied to the author. Adams’ Hitchhiker series does very different things to my brain than say, the Dirk Gently books. One of my personal favorites is a book of short stories by Jimmy Buffet (yes, *that* Jimmy Buffet) called “Tales from Margaritaville.” While I am only a slight fan of his music (schtick much?), I have to say that whenever it’s the depth of winter and I feel the walls closing in on me, the stories in that book somehow make it all better.
While the original admonition from my parents regarding what I should read was more focused on educating me, I’ve found that it’s just as helpful in terms of maintaining who I am, what type of person I am, and developing who I want to be. And maybe that’s the root of even bad stories living on long after they’ve stopped being relevant, including the Bible, the Greek mythology, and other fanciful nonsense. Take the Bible (or any truly ancient religious text for that matter) — as pure storytelling, they’re all pretty much utter and complete crap. They do everything that good storytelling isn’t supposed to do — even read as short stories, they’re not very entertaining. Maybe they’ve hung around so long because of the way they change our brains as much as anything else (despite not being interesting, true, or applicable to your life)?
So, I think what I’m saying is not very new (or perhaps even interesting, true, or applicable to your life), but from my own experiences I have to believe that what we read continues to shape who we are for good or for ill, and as a result, it’s up to each of us to try and do the best we can by reading books that not only improve our intellect but improve the mind itself. And this takes a certain mindfulness as what books do that for you are likely a very personal choice. The importance of books as vehicles for information has been acknowledged since Gutenberg got done tinkering around, but I think their importance as tools to help shape our brains and how we think is just as important. Considering that it was likely poetry that Gutenberg first printed on his press, not the Bible he later become famous for, perhaps that makes a certain amount of sense.
I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who regularly re-reads books and the reasons they do it – so please comment below if you wish to share! As I said at the beginning, I know why I do it, but I’m not sure what other reasons people may have and I’d be interested to hear from other folks.
Oh, and I was wrong at the beginning…the reason I re-read is three-fold, not two-fold. The third reason being that some books are like friends to me. I may not see them all the time, and they may have been out of my life for awhile, and so I want to sit down and spend a little time getting to know them again. One of the primary reasons my wife and I engaged in a total tear-down and rebuild of our basement was that we needed more space for books — and once we completed the basement and got all the shelves in place, we realized we still had too many for the space we had. My wife got rid of a few of hers, but I haven’t parted with any of mine, because I know that a time will come when I might need one and it will be there waiting for me…like good friends do.
While this isn’t strictly part of my long-neglected series “You Are What You Read” it certainly adds something to that, so feel free to read if you feel so inclined. It’s been more focused on the books I’ve read that have shaped who I am, as opposed to shaping who I want to be, which is more what this post is about. 🙂