The Age of Re-Reading

I am at an age now where I find myself more likely to re-read books I loved when I was young than to seek out new authors. I am not sure exactly why. I suspect that it is because when I was young I read everything much less critically which gave the love a chance to grow. These days I read with a more jaundiced eye particularly towards people working in my own genres. I am much more aware of the tricks used and am much more easily bounced out of my willing suspension of disbelief. I do not for a moment believe that writers working today are less skilled than the ones I used to read, I can actually see that in some cases they are much more so. It’s just that these days I set the bar much higher. That’s my theory anyway.

Of course, there are some writers I have come back to again and again all of my life anyway. I re-read The Lord of the Rings every couple of years. I go through the collected works of Robert E Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. There are a number of books by Roger Zelazny and Michael Moorcock I keep coming back to and all of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane books. I endlessly recycle Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett and Dickens and Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky too.

Of late I find most of the books by writers I am unfamiliar with I read are non-fiction. This is a trend I have noticed among many of my friends as well. I am far less likely to try new fiction than I once was. It shames me to admit it but it is so. Perhaps I have become more risk adverse as I am older. Over the years I have spent a lot of money on books I could not get through the first twenty pages of. Re-reading books I know I enjoyed but which I read long enough to have forgotten the details seems to be my new risk adverse strategy. This has some surprising results sometimes.

Some writers you grow with, you come back to them as you get older and you get more out of them and see more in them. Some are a sort of comfort food of the mind. Some are as unsettling as when you visit the street your childhood home was on and find everything changed. They are not at all what you remember them as being. You find the book you recall bear absolutely no resemblance to the book you are reading.You find writers you admired when you were a teenager seem like total nobs when you read them in middle age (Jack Kerouac I am looking at you.)

Right now, I am re-reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series from start to the current novel. I read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn a while back and was sufficiently impressed to want to try his completion of the series after Jordan’s tragic early death. Currently I am at Book Seven, Crown of Swords.

It’s been an odd experience reading these books back to back so close together. One friend asks me why I am subjecting myself to such a cruel and unusual punishment. It is not. It’s a pleasure. A lot of baggage surrounds Jordan. Everyone talks about the info dumps, the braid tugging, the endless soap opera. There’s some truth to this, obviously, but it fails to address the obvious strength of the man’s work; that he can tell a story. He can also create memorable characters. The thing that struck me most strongly re-reading the first few books was the sheer scale of the man’s ambition. So much is promised, so much delivered. Events are foreshadowed that do not occur until a couple of thousand-page books later.

It sounds like damning with faint praise to say you are impressed by an author’s skill at logistics but I do not mean it that way in the least. As someone who has written a couple of longish, multi-book series I know the difficulties involved better than many, and I am gobsmacked by the way Jordan keeps all the balls in the air. If you think what he does is easy, I would respectfully suggest you try it sometime. Someone sufficiently skilled makes even the most difficult things look easy. It is the mark of being skilled.

Scale is the major mark of Jordan’s work, of course; the thing everyone remembers. It is also the thing that leads to the accusations of endless info-dumps. Having gone through a number of the books, I can’t say as I noticed these. Given how much he needs to tell the reader once the backstory has grown, I thought Jordan handled these well. There are very few really noticeable ones and the information is usually skilfully woven into the ongoing story.

I find the characterisation for the most part sympathetic and Jordan handles his themes of power and responsibility well.  Jordan actually fought in a war (was decorated in it too) and had clearly thought about what it means to kill and to lead. He handles the guilt well. The scenes where his young heroes return home to by idolised by those who stayed behind and don’t understand are haunting.

Of course there are flaws, the first few books in the series have tremendous narrative drive but the plotting feels chaotic. Characters appear out of nowhere, climaxes just happen. As the series progresses the narrative pace slackens but the writing becomes more skilled. On balance I am enjoying this exercise hugely. I’ll report back when I get to the end!

 

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  1. Well now this really is something: One of my favorite writers talking about my alltime favorite writer. I enjoyed it pretty much, thank you.

    But first things first. I’m 24 now, so not your age exactly, but it happens to me, that I find myself rereading books, I read a while ago. See, I’m blessed and cursed with a pretty bad memory – calling it a blessing when I have to reread and love the book and a curse when the latest book of a series finally gets into the stores after some time, but you find yourself not fully capable of remembering the situation, the characters are in.

    There are only three writers, I actually reread so far out of pure enjoyment and those are Robert Jordan, William King (sure, I’m honest. I’m reading your blog, am I not?) and … well… Terry Pratchett.
    I can’t enjoy others as much and thought a lot about the why.

    The thing is, that when rereading you know the basic plot. There are no surprising moments or twists anymore, because if they were really surprising, they are memorable and remarkable, so they can’t catch you again, obviously.
    Now I think, that it is a lot harder for the story and the athmosphere to soak you in again and even if it gets a hold of you, every little language faux pas, every single weakness in dialogue will throw you back out right away and leave you to stare at the errors only.

    So what differs you, Mr. Pratchett and Mr. Jordan now from the ones I hate to reread?
    Well first there are no or few enough weaknesses in language or dialogue or things like that in what you guys write.
    Second, your books provide enough to grab the reader again. In case of Mr. Pratchett it’s of course his humor, but his brilliancy in writing dialogue full of genius, too. In case of Robert Jordan it is as you say the way he inweaves all those little atmosphericle details and allusions together with his remarkable characters. And in your case, dear Bill, it is the way you excel in storytelling and world-showing. Always to the point and always rounded.

    The books I dislike to reread usually lack such things up to the point where you start rolling eyes over whole passages. I just reread the first books of James Barclays “The Chronicles of the Raven” after a supplyshortage lead to a reprint here in germany and now finally lets me continue after having to squeeze in Steven Eriksons “A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen”. The thing is, after reading Erikson and then rereading Barclay (bad memory, remember) I can’t enjoy Barclay anymore, for I have seen again what real dialogue-writing is. I really wonder now, how Barclays books could have been published in that unpolished state – and the time inbetween enjoying Barclay and shaking my head over what I’m reading now is merely a year.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Tim,

      I am proud to be mentioned in such exalted company! I really rate Erikson. I’ll probably move back to Malazan once I finish with Jordan! The books are on the Kindle now.

      • You’re welcome. I mean it.
        Perhaps you will like to hear this:
        My dearest friend and me were some of those guys, who always read during school lessons. Imagine a school class right before the exams. Do you see these two guys in the second to last row with fantasynovels on their laps, heads down, ignoring everything else? Yep, that’s us. We both read a lot of fantasy-stuff and it is still our favorite topic of conversation. Everytime one of us just read through a very tiring book of some author (they sometimes are tiring, as we all know, and you never notice it until it is too late to stop), he said “Phew, now I need a King.”
        Our perception of your books was always that they promised a well rounded and satisfying reading experience and delivery of everything you could expect and wish of a story of its kind. They always kept their promise.
        I want to thank you for that.
        I’ve never been into writing fanmail, so it is nice to still be able to somehow express this to you 🙂

        So yeah well, Erikson.
        He is good. I mean like really good. The way he writes dialogues is at the level of Terry Pratchett. But he is one of those tiring writers. I’m sure I will keep on reading the series when it continues, but I will try as hard as I can not to have to read through all of it again. His scene-design is always the same and I think he lost himself in his huge saga. He introduced too many characters and treated them as if they were interchangeable, thus I myself received them as such. “Oh. He died? Yeah well. Who gives…”
        I still have lots of respect for him as a writer, but I think he experimented with the scale of his saga and that experiment failed. Whole books were a let down, followed by whole books I enjoyed to the max, but all in all very tiring.

        Though it seems I really have to get me a kindle soon.

  2. Michael Mooney says:

    I’m on a Zelazny re-read now, and enjoying “Isle of the Dead” as much as ever.

    • A very under-rated book that, I think. It’s Lord of Light, This Immortal, Amber, and Damnation Alley, along with the short stories most people remember. Man, just writing out that list made me think what a great writer Zelazny was.

  3. Jesus, there’s time to read Tolstoy twice in one lifetime?

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