One Read Stands… Are The Best Books The Ones You Re-Read or Just Read Once Only?

I’ve been meaning to discuss this subject for a while now but my post on Tuesday when you might have noticed that I really loved ‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss, however I excluded it from My Orange Shortlist. There have also been some other things which brought it to my attention and I would LOVE your thoughts on it all!

The reason I didn’t pop ‘Great House’ on my version of an Orange Shortlist (I know I said I’d give the orange word a break but it inspired this post) was that though I loved it I wasn’t sure I could read it again, if I did the magic might be broken. That didn’t lessen my love for it the first time, it was just a one read thing but does that mean it’s not as good a book because I won’t go back to it again?

I’m in two minds about this one. One of my very favourite books is ‘American Psycho’ by Brett Easton Ellis, I couldn’t re-read it in part because the consumer passages and pieces about Phil Collins etc, which made the horror all the more vivid with their monotonousness, might bore me rigid but also because it’s a deeply uncomfortable reading experience but I’d still say it’s been one of my favourite books along side Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’, a novel I could probably re-read on repeat regardless. I know all the secrets it has hidden in it’s pages and yet I can return again and again, I can’t say that about some other books as once the secrets revealed you don’t need to go back. Despite my very different thoughts on going back to both these books they are both favourites.

Yet interesting enough, and one of the other reasons that I omitted ‘Great House’ in my guessing on Tuesday, was that when I was a judge on The Green Carnation Prize last year I agreed a (nameless) long listed book I’d loved shouldn’t be short listed because on a second read it all went wrong… And I certainly didn’t want to read it again a third time! It wasn’t an awful book it was just a certain magic spell weaved on read one was broken, I wouldn’t want that to happen with ‘Great House’ too! Had I only read this unnamed book once, in normal circumstances, it would have been one of my favourite reads of 2010. Odd isn’t it? In fact myself and Paul Magrs were discussing the very pros and cons of this at a Green Carnation Chair of Judges handover afternoon tea midweek of last outside on a sunny Manchester street. An excuse for a teapot picture I think…

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Interestingly on her blog Lynne of Dovegreyreader had the opposite feeling to me after equally loving ‘Great House’, she wished she was a judge who could read it again and again, so it’s all down to tastes! Jackie of Farmlanebooks left a comment on my post on Tuesday saying “I want the best books to win and so I’d hate to see my favourites all make the shortlist. I didn’t enjoy Great House or Memory of Love, but they are clearly the best books on the longlist and so I am rooting for them to make it.” Which, in a rather different way, brings the whole question of favourites and best books for a prize up. We all want our favourites to win (well I do) but should they?

So over to you… Are your very favourites books ones you read and re-read or can a book that completely envelops and affects you yet one you wouldn’t read again be of the same merit? Does a book that can’t be read again and again mean its a bad book really no matter how good it is the first time? Should a book that can’t be re-read win a book prize and be a ‘best book’? I’d be utterly fascinated to see your thoughts on this…

28 Comments

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28 responses to “One Read Stands… Are The Best Books The Ones You Re-Read or Just Read Once Only?

  1. Frances

    Yes, yes & yes.
    For me personally, great prose makes a book readable over & over, more than the subject matter.
    I have read ‘great’ books, books on shortlists etc, but sometimes it’s the little unknown, underrated ones that become the re-reads.
    One book that I enjoy re-reading is The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall. I love that book & every time I see it’s cover, I want to pick it up.
    Great article by the way, it just invites debate.

    • Ha that’s a very definate answer there from you Frances, or even three.

      I wish I had seen your thoughts on the Sarah Hall sooner, my own fault for being ill and taking ages to respond, as I gave it to my mother when she last came. It had a marvellous american edition cover too.

  2. It’s an interesting idea. I think the fact that books are so subjective means that people will ultimately feel very differently. I don’t tend to go back to books, particularly if they affected me emotionally or blew me away with beautiful narrative.

    It’s my belief that many books are one shot reads and never more. Having said that, I have to wonder if much of it is a fear on my part. Maybe the novel won’t be as good second time around, or maybe it will lose that spark and I will lose the connection I once had.

    One of my favourite books is Carter Beats the Devil and that is a book I’m unlikely to return to, purely because I don’t want to ruin the opinion I have of it now. And, when I read it, it suited my situations in life at the time.

    • The subjective factor is indeed a big part of it all, in fact thats one of the most fascinating things about being on The Green Carnation judges last year… I couldnt initially believe every book I loved wasn’t universally loved. How dare they? Hahaha.

      I am amazed that you think a book is a one off read though, are there no books at all you would love to turn to again and again?

  3. My first reaction was: the ones you re-read, of course, but then I made a quick list in my head of the books I considered ‘the best’ and the ones I’d read several times, and they were quite different.

    The re-reads were more easy reads, while the ‘best’ list contained the books that really had made a difference to the way I think, to my view on the world, etc., but which I had only read once.

    Maybe it’s like with chocolate: really great chocolate has a more intense flavour, so you need less to satisfy a craving?

    Which leaves the questions how we define ‘best’ and why we often associate it with ideas like: rare, multi-layered / complex, unexpected, … (No answers there, sorry) 🙂

    • You see its interesting because when I used to think it was the one off books that could be counted as the best. Then when I had to re-read and re-read the longlisted and shortlisted Green Carantion books it soon became a little clearer to me that in that situation its re-readablity. Some books I thought were brilliant made me want to scream the second time I read them. Books I didnt like as much went the opposite way, it was an interesting experience.

      I like the question you ask at the end, its one I am already finding myself in and I have only read two of this years Green Carnation contenders!

  4. lubylou12

    I think it’s a tough one really Simon, I personally never re read books no matter how much I love them. It’s a mixture of having too many other books that I desperately want to read but also I just never enjoy it the second time round. I don’t think that’s any slur on the writer it’s just me, I get bored very easily and if I re read something the excitement of unveiling the story just gets lost on me. It’s interesting what you said about the orange prize though, maybe a book should be re readable in order to be worthy? But for me it isn’t relevant.

    • I know what you mean about having too many books to read out there, that is one thing that puts me off a re-read. The other is indeed the chance it might not be as good and your thoughts would be tarnished forever. Yet, having said that, I do have a select group of books I could read again and again, there is nothing like it when you are feeling low or in need of some literary comfort.

  5. gaskella

    Yes and/or no to all the questions for me Simon. Like you there are some books that are so vivid/shocking/(insert adjective here) that re-reading them would spoil the illusion. Others can be re-read, albeit often with a slightly different hat allowing you to analyse how they got to the conclusion etc etc etc. So Yes and/or no.
    Having said that, prize-winners would, I hope, tend to be re-readable. How confusing is that! 😉

    • You see I wonder if the shocking books become cult books. I noticed the most shocking of the books (though of course shocking is subjective) didnt make it onto the Orange longlist, so I am hoping (as they were some of the best) that they become cult reads instead… or underground hits. Ha that phrase always makes me laugh.

      It’s not confusing really, well it is and it isnt – now thats confusing, I would hope a book that wins is a book that keeps giving something.

  6. I loved Krauss’ The History of Love but I’m too scared to read it again in case its not as good the second time (Great House is on my library reservations list). I’m always a little scared to reread as some books are ruined, such as The God of Small Things which I hated second time around. But my top 5 reads (Possession, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, The Time Traveller’s Wife and Great Expectations) I’ve read many times so I do think books should be able to stand a reread.
    As to prize winners I’ve often found that it isn’t my favourite which has won, I think that they should be able to grab a variety of readers but have substance to them to stand the testof time. Room was good, but a throw away read, something that’ll be made into a film, and forgotten in a few years.

    • The fear of a book not being so good a second time seems a common one indeed. I have heard other prize judges say that books that won havent been their very favourite but you would hope that they were in their top three at leastw wouldnt you?

      Prizes do tend to come down to a concencus, was ‘Paperboy’ my favourite of all the submissions for last years Green Carnation Prize? No, my favourite was out at the start as the others didnt like it, but Paperboy was one of my three favourites in the shortlist.

  7. I can’t think of a book i thought was great, but wouldn’t want to read again. For me, something’s great if i want to return to it and be with those characters again – and when i go back to books like ‘Saint Maybe’, ‘Maybe the Moon’, ‘Carrie’s War’ or ‘The Dark is Rising’, I always hope i’ll have forgotten bits, so i can experience them fresh on this umpteenth reread…

    • I think thats certainly something I have learnt the more I have read and developed as a reader, that makes it sound like a job and its not its a joy but you know what I mean. I need to look up all those books you have mentioned dont I!?

  8. I don’t re-read books and so the things I look for are very different from what I think the prize judges should be. I want to be entertained, but I think that prize winning books should be capable of standing the test of time. The best books should be capable of withstanding multiple re-reads.

    I loved Baba Segi’s Wives, but it was pure entertainment and not something people will want to linger over in twenty years time. Great House and The Memory of Love are both beautifully written books which will be enjoyed by generations to come. I’m sure that re-reads will reveal allsorts of extra gems in them.

    Room is a tricky one, because although the writing isn’t perfect I do think it will stand the test of time (even though it won’t stand up to multiple re-reads). I would be happy to see any of those three win the Orange prize.

    • I couldnt agree with you on the Baba Segi comment actually Jackie as in twenty years time the polygamy that goes on there, based on the current state of things, will be of great historic value if everything changes.

      Standing the test of time is an important quality true, but we never know what the future might bring or what books might date faster than others. I think a timeless book is really really hard to accomplish.

  9. Enjoyed your post and it got me to thinking about the fact that I do re-read books that I love and I don’t re-read books that I love. There are just some books that definitely lose their appeal if read more than once – and this goes for some of my all time favorite reads. Its strange isn’t it, how some books can be read over and over again and still retain that magic that they did the first time round. Hmmm.

    • Thats what intrigued me reading the Orange books Nadia. I was interested in the fact that I could have re-read three of them and wanted them in the shortlist alongside the fact I loved two I wouldnt want to read again… and wanted them in the shortlist, its a tricky, tricky thing.

  10. Jen

    I love to re-read my favorite books! (Sophie’s Choice, William Styron; I Dreamed of Africa, Kuki Gallmann; Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen; All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren; Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell; Amos, To Ride A Dead Horse, Stanley Gordon West; Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry; An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redfield Jamison;
    A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry) I only started this practice a few years ago after talking to a friend. Take care, Simon.

    • From what I have heard I dont know if I could re-read Sophies Choice. I am not sure I could read it once let alone again and again, isnt it terribly, terribly sad?

  11. Eva

    Heehee: one read stands! Makes it sound so sordid. 😉

    All of my personal favourites are books that I can read again, yes, and my favourite authors, if I haven’t actually reread any of their stuff yet, are ones I envision myself turning to over and over.

    As for prize winners…well, I pay about zero attention to any of the prizes, so I have no opinion there.

    • Hahaha books can be sordid in a sense… no no not that one lol!

      I think favourite authors and favourite books are two different kettles of fish. In fact I was discussing this only the other day, I only have one favourite author who has two books in my top 40 books of all time and thats Wilkie Collins.

  12. Fabio Schirone

    Personally, I read books only once and even if a lot of stories and characters have blasted through my imagination and kept me company nights after nights or on my commute to work, I cant say that I ‘d like to re-live the same stories.
    I avidly glance at my pile of books on my dresser trying to decide which book will be the next one to catapult me in a different era, time and yes space!

    I have read a lot of books and each of them is like a treasure chest but when i close it, i cant really go back to them
    I need something different all the time … So Simon keep writing and enlighten us on all those stories bursting with a life of their own on miles and miles of shelves across the country!

    • I am amazed that people can love certain books and yet not want to read them again, I find that really fascinating. Is it a time thing, a fear of not liking them again, or simply once a book is done its done?

  13. Sometimes I’m scared to re-read my favourite books just in case it isn’t as wonderful as I remembered (The Secret History by Donna Tartt in my case). But then others I re-read every few years. I don’t think a book needs to be re-readable in order to be good. But it should be memorable.

    • Memorable is a great way of summing it up actually Sakura. I think books that you remember and think about again and again without having to rush to pick it up again is an interesting perspective and possibly the closest to the idea prize winning book. Though of course why a book is memorable is subjective in itself. Memorable in a good way lol.

  14. novelinsights

    It’s tough to answer that because I always feel such time constraints on reading these days that re-reading even brilliant books seems a difficult thing to get around to. Having said that, some of my favourite children’s books I could read over and over. Also with Never Let Me Go which I’ve just read, I could re-read that happily and I think would discover different things the second time.

    • Never Let Me Go is an amazing book isnt it. Oh don’t I could talk about that book till the cows come home. In fact I need to add it to my favourite books which I havent done yet… sorry I digressed. Oh no, Never Let Me Go… it didnt win the Booker the year it was longlisted and I wonder if its the marmite affect, people either love it or they loathe it. In the longlisting judges will let a book with second time potential get through but no further.

      Did that make any sense or have I turned to waffle?

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