Thursday, August 03, 2006

Book Returns

I’ve reread two books this summer, and I’m in the process of rereading a third. In the past, I’ve been unjustifiably resistant to rereading. I figured it was wasteful to spend precious time reading books I’d already read when there were so many out there that I hadn’t. But now I’ve reconsidered. I here offer a list of reasons to reread:

1. Differing rates of diminishing marginal utility. Sure, the marginal utility of a given book may decline with each reading, but it doesn’t always drop to zero after the first. Truly excellent books’ marginal utility starts high and declines slowly. Thus, the marginal utility of rereading an old book can exceed the marginal utility of reading a new one for the first time.

2. Potential for increasing marginal utility. Some books make more sense the second time around. Themes fully developed in the later chapters now jump out more readily in the early chapters. Foreshadowing you blew past the first time, because you didn’t know what was to come, now becomes apparent.

3. Complementarity with subsequent reading and education. Your understanding and appreciation of a book depends, in large part, on what you bring to the table. Lacking the optimal background and stock of knowledge, you might fail to appreciate the best material. Go back when you’ve learned a bit more, and you’ll find insights that resonate more than they did the first time around.

4. Known quantities versus expected values. You know what quality to expect from a book you’ve read before. By contrast, any new book is a gamble. It could be great, or it could be lousy. This lowers the expected value of new reading relative to rereading.

5. Forgetfulness. An obvious point, but still true. Wait long enough, and rereading a book is almost like reading it for the first time again. (However, forgetfulness can also diminish the "known quantities" point above. The first of this summer's rereads was not nearly as good as I'd remembered, for example. That is one of the dangers of rereading, but it's no greater than the danger of a new read. The other two have been at least as good as I remembered.)

A solicitation for comments: What books have you reread most often? And what characteristics are common to the most rereadable books?


Will Wilkinson said...

What books?

Glen Whitman said...


Do you think I should have said "which books"? Or are you implying that you only read blogs now?

dgm said...

with fiction, i like to reread the books that were good enough to evoke a certain mood for me. not just the one i enjoyed; i have to also have memories that the book moved me to feel something strongly about the characters or a situation. (i didn't articulate that well because it's hard to describe, sorry).

for instance, wallace stegner's "angle of repose" really "spoke" to me and i couldn't stop thinking about it and pitying some of the characters for a long time after i read it. as with a favorite song that i replay over and over, i want to conjure up strong feelings again with something i know will do the trick. i always hope a new book will do that, but it rarely happens.

someday i'll reread "life of pi," not simply because i loved the book, but because i want to go back and see what i missed the first time, in light of the ending.

with nonfiction, i will reread if i think that age/time/experience has given me a different perspective or new understanding of the material. i read paul johnson's "modern times" when it first came out and have recently attempted to take it up again. the world looks very different to me now than it did when i was in my twenties, and i'm curious to see how much that has changed my understanding of events in the book.

Ben said...

For a second there I thought the title of the first book you re-read was "Differing rates of diminishing marginal utility"

Frank said...

Charles Taylor, essays in his collection "Philosophy and the Human Sciences."

I like this question because I think there's a way in which the book both
a) is increasingly useful over time and
b) makes me the type of person who finds such a book increasingly useful over time.

That reminds me of Robert Frank's point at the beginning of "Passions Within Reason;" that we are best off when we cultivate certain "values" or "tastes" for justice. I think Frank has a better moral perspective on the topic than run-of-the-mill economic treatment of tastes (ala Becker).

Anonymous said...

The book I've re-read the most often—about five times, give or take—in my life is Friedrich Nietzsche's The Anti-Christ

The language is bracing even at points where the logic is inscrutable and N's pugilistic challenge is a welcome reply to the everyday world of unquestioned, anodyne pseudo-Christianity.

As for fiction I find myself returning frequently to the short stories of Chekhov. They are intensely crafted so there is almost no work left for the reader. It's almost like listening to an evocative, well-told tale.