Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

WorldCon: Re-reading panel

Jo Walton, Ron Drummond, Naomi Libiki, Anne Gwin, Kate Nepveu (M)
There is a school of thought that re-reading is a juvenile habit, something children demand as a way to gain comfort. Yet most fans re-read. All critics do. What is it we gain from re-reading, do some texts bear more re-reading than others? And does this notion of comfort reading have any validity?

This is going to be a very impressionistic panel report, because I was moderating, not taking notes (except very cryptic ones about things to talk about next), and since I wanted this to be a very participatory panel, a lot of my brain was taken up with noting who was next to be called on and who hadn't spoken yet. I welcome corrections, additions, and further discussion.

Jo Walton is a novelist and posts about re-reading at Tor.com. Ron Drummond runs a small press and was a last-minute fill-in for Graham Sleight, who was too ill to come. Naomi Libiki and Anne Gwin are houseguests of Jo's who we added when we thought it was just her and me. Libiki lives in Israel where new books are harder to come by, so re-reads a lot because of that; Gwin re-reads very little because she went to grad school.

I started by asking people about different types of re-reads. There's one where you turn to the last page and just turn immediately to page one. I used to do this a lot, especially if I was really too fast because I wanted to know WHAT HAPPENS and missed bits, or if I really liked it and want to appreciate it again, or if there was a plot twist or a big reveal and I want to see how it was set up. What else?

Walton said that she almost never does the immediate re-read, but she reads a book once, puts it on the shelf, and looks forward to re-reading it in about six months. She doesn't think her experience of a book is complete until that time. (See these Tor.com posts.)

Other people talked about re-reading because they missed the people or the person they were at the time they read. Libiki talked about re-reading to revisit the immersive experience she first had.

That took us off into different experiences about re-visiting the fist time you read something. I often find that re-reading something reminds me of when I first read it but I still have an awareness of how I am not the same person and am not having the same experience. Other people had other experiences which I cannot remember in sufficient detail right now to report accurately.

We talked about series re-reading. Sometimes that works as a binge, sometimes it doesn't when you start seeing patterns & too many similarities (Barry Hughart). Later someone asked if authors re-read their own work in preparation for writing the next book in a series, to avoid inconsistencies. Walton said that becoming a writer made her see minor inconsistencies in series much differently: for her re-reading all ten books in a series for the next one is fun, but as an author, especially when the books are fairly recent, when a book's been written, edited, copyedited, and proofread, she just wants to put it in a sack and drop it down a well (or some such). Re-reading your own work is not fun.

(Walton had previously said that she has a shelf of single unread books by dead authors. She's recently realized what she's keeping them for: when at the end of her life she starts going into a long decline, she'll have those books. She said after the above that if she gets diagnosed with Alzheimer's then at least she'll have the reader-experience of her own books! (Me: "Jo Walton, finding the silver lining in really dark clouds since 19-mumble!"))

Drummond talked about re-reading really good works that were "bottomless," always had something new or different in them. Other people talked about books being different at different points in their life. I used the example of A.S. Byatt's _Possession_, which I first read when it came out in trade pb after it won the Booker, when I was 12 or so; and it read very differently when I read it the first time I was in love, and would probably read very differently again now that I'm a parent. (I think this came up because someone in the audience said they really like re-reading books in which the protagonist is transformed, and I used the idea of the coming-of-age story as a springboard to life changes.)

Drummond brought up a book called _The Gutenberg Elegies_; I believe that this is how we got on to the idea that in earlier days, people would only have read 20 books in their entire life, so it was expected that you would re-read. Walton talked about growing up with really infrequent trips to the bookstore and no libraries (an unrecognized privilege: the confident assumption that there will always be new books!).

Someone in the audience, I believe, brought up a quote from Tolkien's letters that seemed to proceed from the assumption that people will only read a book once. (Me: re-reading _LotR_ has made it clear how much I am not Tolkien's expected reader, but this is maybe the most fundamental way!) It was suggested that maybe he just meant that people shouldn't read things early in case it puts them off for life. Walton, Libiki, and someone in the audience talked about, err, I think George Eliot? Maybe _Middlemarch_? Anyway, a book that you ought to read when you're over 40 so you'll appreciate it, except Libiki who read it at 16. There was also a book mentioned that gets assigned in high school when it's entirely the wrong age, but that's because it's the shortest of this woman author's works (you can tell I didn't write down titles).

Qualities of comfort books that people offered; missing the people; wanting to get a sense of the voice (Greer Gilman from the audience); lack of moral ambiguity; relative simpilcity; relative complexity, to enjoy how it all comes together. Very varied, sometimes within a person in addition to across people.

I asked what books people don't dare re-read or have re-read and been surprised by, happily or un-. Gwin, I think, said a friend talks about "The Suck Fairy"; she was very disappointed to find that there was also a Racism Fairy (me: "it's a prominent subset of the Suck Fairy") that went and visited her Little House on the Prairie books. She doesn't dare re-read lots of Heinlein because one of them had been visited by the Sexism Fairy. Libiki didn't re-read the Narnia books for a long time because someone had told her that they were Christian allegory (Walton: "they are? What?" (Nb. that was a joke.))

And that's not all we talked about, but that's all I remember.
Tags: anticipation 2009, con reports, cons, worldcon

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