Good books are like friends.
You don’t meet with a good friend only once. There are conversations to have over coffee, when waiting for the subway or after a glass of wine. The subtleties and particularities of both of you will reveal themselves the more time you spend together. So too with books. Whether a philosophy book, a short fiction story or a volume of poetry, returning to the same book over the months and years will prove more insightful than reading a large number of different works.
Most reading is utilitarian in nature – to advance one’s career, learn a new skill, or study a certain subject. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach. Life is full of situations that demand a pragmatic attitude, so we must respond accordingly. However, this approach is limited and limiting: when we treat a book as a treasure chest of ideas, ready to be consumed, we hinder the opportunity for a more profound relationship with that text.
I’ve written before about our tendency to champion breadth over depth. Our book consumption is biased towards speed and efficiency, instead of profundity of understanding, our reading habits illuminating the prevailing values of our society.
Rather than entering a dialogue with the author, we rush to the finish line, greedy to extract as many “gems” from the book as possible. But many learnings we can derive from a text don’t come pre-packaged as a fast food meal, instead they require careful and sustained engagement. They aren’t like precious gems, but more akin to seeds that we have to water ourselves.
Why slow reading is important
Slow reading allow us to truly consider the points of the author, to enter a dialogue with their ideas and connect their thoughts to our previous knowledge. A text rich in ideas, woven with examples, stories and studies, containing lush language and carefully laid out arguments will require us to dedicate our entire attention and brain width to grapple with the author’s mind. The subtleties of the text will only be revealed as we meticulously consider each point and take the time to make take notes, connections with other ideas and enrich the text with our own understanding.
Why you should read a book more than once
Inevitably, at a first reading, especially if the subject or author is unfamiliar to you, no matter how diligent you are in your reading, you’re likely to miss various ideas. Some points are so fine that they’ll slip through the sieve of your brain, only revealing themselves to you at a second or third reading. Learning why and how to reread a book is a valuable skill that will turn you into a deeper thinker who values the process more than the outcome.
But poring over books isn’t only valuable insofar as it will increase the information volume in our brain. There’s a TV show on Netflix called Locke & Key, in which, with the use of magical keys, the protagonists can achieve incredible feats. One of those keys allowed its user (and other people too) to enter their own mind, and even bring real life objects inside it (such as books, for example). So one character, instead of studying for an exam, simply threw the textbooks “in her mind”, allowing her to “download” all the information into her brain. I’m sure if some of us were offered this opportunity, we’d take it in a heartbeat. But, as I was saying, information accumulation isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) the only reason we read. Transformation is also a valid endeavor, turning to books for guidance and company.
But transformation of character doesn’t happen overnight. In most cases, we need time to “go out into the world”, test the ideas we’ve read, then come back as a slightly different person and see how our understanding of ourselves and the world has changed. It’s likely that the following readings of the same book will reveal to us things that we didn’t pick up on before.
As you change, so does the information that stands out to you in what you read. This allows you to enter a virtuous cycle, because each time you come back to a specific book, you can see deeper into its teachings, allowing you to act better into the world, which in turn will transform you, resulting in you being able to pick up on even more ideas from the same book. The text will become an inexhaustible fountain of wisdom (provided it’s a substantial text, of course).
How to decide which book to reread
There’s no fixed formula for this, but there are some pointers that can illuminate the decision.
Sometimes, it’s obvious from the first pages of a book that we won’t be able to get as much out of it only in one go, other times we may only realize at the end of reading it that we’re compelled to revisit it in the future (either for pragmatic reasons: we need to study for an exam and haven’t yet grasped the material properly, or for personal ones: you want to deepen your understanding of the subject).
In my opinion, books that are worth re-reading meet at least one of the following criteria:
- you feel a calling to revisit passages or quotes from them
- it has stood the test of time
- it is the touchstone for an entire field of study
- you’re inspired by the ideas in it and want to apply them into your life
- you found the topic or delivery “out of your intellectual league” and would like to understand it better
- you would like to think more about that book’s subject
When to reread a book
So, to also touch on a practical matter: when should we decide to revisit a text?
For practical reasons, some texts need to be reread immediately. In other cases, it’s ideal to let some time pass, from 6 months to maybe one year, so let the ideas steep in your brain so you return to them with a more mature perspective. Or you could pick up a book you read ten years ago, one that you remember had an impact on you, so that you can enter a dialogue with the person you were before and observe how your outlook on the text and the world has changed.
How to reread a book
First, it’s a good idea to try to establish a baseline.
Revisit your notes (if you took any) or recap the main points of the book. See what you can remember and what stood out to you. Since you read the book, what ideas connected to it did you encounter? What were the ideas that influenced you the most? Did you agree with everything you read?
It’s important to not let yourself be fooled by the exposure effect. Encountering the same words and arguments a second or third time around will feel familiar and even obvious to you. You’ll be less tempted to scrutinize what you read and more prone to nodding your head in agreement. The more exposed we are to an idea, the more we’ll sympathize with it, letting its familiarity lull us into a deep intellectual slumber.
Reading, especially rereading, can easily fool us into believing we understand a text. Rereading is especially dangerous because of the mere-exposure effect: The moment we become familiar with something, we start believing we also understand it. On top of that, we also tend to like it more.1Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes
You can either approach the text in a linear fashion, taking it page by page, or jump to a specific section that deals with the topic you’re most interested in. Before reading, see if you can recall what the author’s points were. If you want to be diligent, you can even write a short paragraph summarizing the main idea. Then, you can compare your own understanding to what the author actually said.
You can also connect the ideas you’re revisiting to the ones you encountered since you last read the book.
The second time around is the best chance to iron out any creases in your understanding, as well as be more deliberate and precise with each argument, not jumping to the next paragraph until you fully considered all the points in the current one.
A crucial advantage that is unlocked when you reread a book is that now you know all the points that have been made, giving you a bird’s eye view of the whole text. When you first read a book, your comprehension will arrive in stages, like a loading bar that keeps progressing, with each argument building off the previous one, adding to the entire body of work.
The second or third time around, the loading bar is already at 100% so you can focus on how the individual arguments contribute to the bigger picture and their relationship to each other. Now you can appreciate the finer points and get a sense for the architecture of the thought the author laid out.
Hopefully I’ve inspired you to dedicate more time and mental resources to the books that animate your brain. Learning how to reread a book will prove invaluable for everyone who takes their intellectual journey seriously.
- 1Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes