Re-reading Books

From time-to-time, I re-read books. Since 1996, 17 out of every 100 books that I read are books that I have already read. Over the course of 20 years, that adds up to over 100 books that I’ve re-read. I sometimes feel guilty about this. Why spend the time reading a book I’ve already read, when I could be reading something new? After all: so many books, so little time.

I recently started re-reading Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and in doing so, I realized that there are, for me at least, three good reasons for re-reading books.

1. I enjoyed the book

There are some books that I enjoyed so much, I look forward to re-reading them. For years, each April, I’d re-read Isaac Asimov’s 3-volume autobiography. Over the years, I’ve read those three books 13 or 14 times each.

I loved Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 (I haven’t watched the mini-series), and I especially loved Craig Wasson’s narration of the audiobook. I have read/listened to that book 5 times.

I tend to re-read a book for the sheer pleasure of it at times when I feel I need a bit of a mental boost, and the book that I choose to re-read always serves its purpose.

2. I don’t remember much about the book

I mentioned that I am currently re-reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb. I first read this book in December 2003. If you asked me what I thought of the book, I’d tell you that it was one of the best books I’ve ever read on project management. But the intervening thirteen years between my first reading, and my present reading reminded me of just how well the book integrates scientific development in historical context. I had forgotten all about this aspect of the book, and this time around I am finding it fascinating.

This is true of other books that I’ve read, and return to years later. I sometimes feel like I read books in a coma. I am totally in the moment when I read them, and can recall the gist of the book months or years later, but much of the details, even the interesting details, seem to abandon me. Returning to a book that I read, and don’t remember well offers new insights and surprises for things I’d forgotten, or glossed over the first time.

3. Additional context brings out new understanding

My re-reading of The Making of the Atomic Bomb cemented in my mind a third reason for re-reading books from time-to-time: additional context brings out new understanding. In the 13 years since I first read the book, I have read an additional 369 books. Those 369 books included many books on history and science. A few years ago, for instance, I read William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill, which gave me the best education I’d received to-date on the Great War.

While reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb this time around, the context that I have in understanding the formative times in Europe, during which some of the scientists who played a key role in the development of the bomb lived. Having that context provides me with a wider scope of understanding than my first reading.

I no longer fret over re-reading books. I am satisfied with my reasons for re-reading, whether it is for pleasure, to refresh my memory, or to add more context to something I’d read in the past. Sure, using time to re-read a book means that I can’t use that time to read a book that is new to me. But I read an average of 40 to 50 books each year. That means that at least 33 to 40 of them are “new” to me. I can live with that.