Reread quest

The book you reread is different from the book you read the time before. You change. Your reading strategies change. The book expands to fill more of your life.

I’ve been writing about books I love, that I reread because I love both the experience of reading them and the experience of having read them deeply and as part of the rhythms of my life. But I don’t reread the same way every time, and I reread each book differently. My first few readings of many books usually conform to the genre reader archetype: I read for plot, to find out what happens, and then I reread to find out what I missed, to dwell on beautiful sentences and clear up confusion engendered by reading so fast. But my subsequent rereads are idiosyncratic.

Since I discovered the books of the amazing sf writer Samuel R. Delany in my teens, I’ve read my favorites several dozen times. As a younger reader I liked the shorter, more tightly plotted novels he wrote in the 1960s, in preference to his shaggy, more theoretical later books, with their uneasy sexualities and ambiguous endings.

Since it was one of those early favorites, I’ve reread Nova, his 1968 Holy-Grail-in-Space story, more times than I can count. The book starts with a wonderful set piece in a port on Triton, where we are introduced to Mouse, who plays a synesthetic instrument, the “sensory syrynx;” Katin, the character who is writing a novel and annoys me because he is so relatable and I see the bright-eyed college kid part of myself in him; and the brilliant, damaged Captain Lorq Von Ray, who is recruiting a crew for his trip into the sun on the Roc. The worldbuilding is great: everyone has plugs in their wrists and neck, to plug into ships and machines so that everyone can do actual work with their bodies. A scene takes place at a galactic museum. It is a wonderful, rich space opera story about history and writing and bodies and blindness and empires rising and falling.

But what I forget because of the way I reread is that this grail quest book is also a story of a bitter rivalry between the Von Ray and Prince and Ruby Red, owners of a huge company that makes spaceship machinery and controls mines of a Macguffin energy source, Illyrion. The story is told episodically with flashbacks to connections and clashes between the Reds and Von Ray — and Von Ray’s doomed romance with Ruby. But I always skip the flashbacks, because Prince Red is cruel and violent and Ruby is duplicitous, and I care more about Mouse and Katin than about the clash of empires. So the epic story, upon multiple rereads, has become for me a story about very different people brought together on a ship, and their picaresque, important travels across the galaxies talking about technology and writing and life and history.

But because I skip the Prince Red parts doesn’t mean I just reread a few pages or scenes I like. I reread probably two-thirds of the book. The parts I love don’t make sense without the experience of having (mostly) read up to that point in the book. The process of reading matters. And the parts I love have a different valance when they’re less inflected by the cruelties of Von Ray’s youth. Often the books I reread are different than on the first read for more subtle reasons, paragraphs that suddenly jump out, motivations that are suddenly revealed. But when I reread Nova, given the parts I skip, I literally read a different book.  And I love that book too.

Suzanne Fischer is a historian and writer who lives in Detroit. She cares about people, places, and things. Find her on Twitter as @publichistorian

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