October 24, 2020

On Re-Reading Books

re-reading a book is never the same experience; you are never the same person.

There’s a (nonfiction) book I’ve been reading slowly, mostly on the weekends. I keep forgetting to stick a bookmark in it, so I’m always flipping through to find where I left off. This is a minor annoyance; it’s a book I own and requires frequent underlining.

Today marks the first time in several weeks since I last read this book. I hadn’t the slightest idea where I’d left off. I found a section I remembered and started reading the next one, searching for anything familiar.

This particular section was fantastic. I underlined several areas, underlined AND bracketed another, and I wanted to write the words “this cannot be overstated” but figured underlining + brackets had already made the point. I was thinking what a great section this was when I read a line and thought… wait a minute… I’ve already read all of this.

Despite being an excellent section, with deep insights, there had been no pen ink on these pages. On my previous reading I must have missed everything that had just been heavily marked, or somehow didn’t find those thoughts noteworthy at the time.

I have three thoughts about this:

  1. I was distracted or sleepy while reading it previously.
  2. It’s the type of writing that requires more than one reading.
  3. I was different since my last reading.

I would have emphatically agreed with these statements a mere 3 weeks ago, and they weren’t hard to understand, so it’s not 1 or 2. I have no doubt that I was trying to read this when over-tired or being interrupted, and I just missed everything.

I thought more about that last point. It reminded me of what an unmentioned privilege it is to re-read books. I only purchase books I plan to read again, so I could open any book on my shelf and learn something forgotten, or something new.

Re-reading a book is never the same experience; you’re not the same person you were when you last read it.

If you’re doing life right, you should be constantly learning new things, adjusting opinions, discovering why you hold the beliefs you do. Changing your mind is generally a good thing and reflects a healthy relationship with your ego. There are tons of books I regularly read that would have gone over my head 10 years ago. (That’s not an age thing, by the way). There are specific thoughts that will stand out to me now, but give it a year and I might get something completely different out of the same book.

Of all the ways to package and share knowledge, books are my favorite. They’re tactile/tangible. They have literal and metaphorical weight. You can underline things, make notes about related thoughts or other books, bookmark pages or stick post-it notes, flip through and start reading anywhere. It’s unlike any digital experience. The fact that you can learn new things from the same passages of a book you’ve already read is just icing on the cake.

Go read (or re-read) some books.

Need suggestions? Here are a few of my all-time favorites (non-fiction):

  1. The Naked Now by Richard Rohr
  2. The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
  3. Atomic Habits by James Clear
  4. The Righteous Mind by Jonathon Haidt
  5. Biased by Jennifer L. Eberhardt
  6. You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy
  7. Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
  8. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  9. Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
  10. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (had to throw this definite fiction in here)

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