The case for rereading

The first time I read Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, I got to the end and promptly turned back to the first page and began to read it again. This was my introduction to Butler’s writing, and I was unprepared: for the radicalness of her perspective on human nature, and for the encounter with the aliens in the book, whose interaction with humans is both terrifying and transfixing. By the end, I was so thoroughly involved in her world that I couldn’t bear to leave it—so I didn’t.

I did the same thing with Anna Tsing’s outstanding Mushroom at the End of the World and with several of the novellas in Elizabeth Hand’s Errantry; I did it with Tamsyn Muir’s infuriatingly good Gideon the Ninth, and again with Harrow. With Mushroom at the End of the World, I felt my brain was being rewired as I read it and I wanted that rewiring to stick. With Lilith’s Brood, I had an irresistible desire to remain in the world Butler had built, for longer than the book could grant. With Errantry, I was motivated by the sheer need to spend more time with Hand’s language, to keep turning her sentences around in my head. Gideon and Harrow were both so much fun I didn’t want to quit them, but I also had questions a single read couldn’t answer.

I’m not talking about just any kind of rereading here. If it’s been a decade since you’ve read a book, you aren’t so much rereading as reading it for the first time—again. I’m taking about rereading when the book is still reasonably fresh, maybe within a year. If more time has passed, you will have forgotten large parts of it, or misremembered, and will still experience some of the initial novelty you had with the first read. But a reread within a year, or a few at most, occupies a space where you can still recall enough to approach a book with familiarity. Instead of being surprised by a turn of events, you anticipate them; lines and phrases pop out as ones you remember, but they seem louder this time around, more resonant—as if they are lining up with the memory of the first time you heard them, wave patterns amplifying one another.

I’ve read and reread William Gibson’s The Peripheral an unknown number of times because I can’t stop thinking about the Jackpot—the slow-moving, centuries long apocalypse in which eighty percent of the world’s population is lost. It’s such an apt framework for understanding our current times that reading it is like cleaning my glasses, wiping away the film I hadn’t noticed was starting to cloud my view.

adrienne maree brown takes this kind of rereading further: in Emergent Strategy, she describes reading Octavia Butler as gospel:

I read sci fi and visionary fiction as political, sacred, and philosophical text, and I engage with others who read it that way. I spent the first part of my life learning what history’s victors wanted me to believe about the past, including the simple assumption that it was the past. I see massive patterns of violence and inequality in history, which perpetuate in the daily news. Science fiction, particularly visionary science fiction, is where I go when I need the medicine of possibility applied to the trauma of human behavior. While I have done deep dives into the work of Samuel Delaney, Ursula Le Guin, and others, I started this scholarship in earnest with Octavia. She presented perspectives on the future that were terrifying and compelling, and she took my breath away with her ideas for how to navigate change.

brown, Emergent Strategy, page 37

Reread a book enough times, or often enough—keep it at hand so you can flip to dog-eared pages and marked up passages here and there—and it will eventually root itself in your mind. It becomes both a reference point and a connector, a means of gathering your knowledge and experience, drawing it all together. It becomes the material through which you engage with the world.

In Staying with the Trouble (another book I’ve read more than twice), Donna Haraway writes:

The British sociologist Marilyn Strathern … taught me that “it matters what ideas we use to think other ideas (with).” ... It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots; what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.

Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, page 12

The Jackpot is one of the thoughts I think with. I also think with Octavia Butler’s insistent call to shape change. I think with adrienne maree brown’s thinking with Butler’s stories. I think with the complicated and critical anarchism of Shevek in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. I think with the many thousand year frame of John Crowley’s ymr every time I notice a bird alight on the tree in my tiny backyard. I think with Ursula Franklin’s thoughts of holistic and prescriptive technology. I think with Walter Ong’s secondary orality, with E.F. Schumacher’s Buddhist economics, with Haraway’s chthulucene. I think with Gideon Nav’s loyalty to her friend and nemesis, with Hild’s gemaecce, with all the ways that friendship between women can gather and explode. I think with N.K Jemisin’s stonelore, about the interdependence needed to survive an inevitable civilizational collapse.

I think often with Mary Ruefle’s incandescent and urgent call to waste time, a kind of exorcism of productivity and capitalism and all its trappings, an incantation to be alive.

Rereading packs your brain with thoughts to think with. It also makes other thoughts—like those that might flit by you in the form of various newsfeeds—less likely to be thought with. It gives you something to hold on to, something to draw back to, when everything else is in flux.

I’ve spent more time rereading in the past six months, in part because I’ve spent less time doing anything else, what with the loss of so many of the routines of ordinary life. But I also think the instinct is a grounding one. Reading, especially fiction, is often referred to as an escape, but I’ve never believed that. It’s true that a great story transports you somewhere else, that returning to your life afterwards can feel like an abrupt reentry. But I think that’s less because you escaped the real world, however briefly, and more that you got a clearer look at it. A great book rearranges time: it brings both history and speculative futures into the present, into a now you can occupy and taste and feel. The constraints of capitalism and patriarchy and white supremacy work to compress the present into the smallest of cages—this day, this hour, this minute—with everything before lost, and everything after always deferred. Reading enlarges the moment: it gives you the space to live in a time that is months or years or centuries in breadth, to contemplate measures and movements that are greater than your own life. A great book doesn’t take you away from the world—it brings you back to the world you were torn from.

Reading isn’t an escape—it’s a reckoning.

Rereading is training, practice for remaking and unmaking—and, yes, razing—the world. Rereading draws your best thoughts close, keeps them at the ready, prepares you to think thoughts with them, prepares you to act with them at hand. Your favorite reads are your armor and your weapons and your shelter all in one. What have you gathered about you? What has taken root in your mind? What thoughts are you thinking with?

Related books

Lilith’s Brood

Octavia E. Butler

This collection of novels begins with a woman named Lilith, who survives a disastrous war on Earth only to find the planet invaded by aliens, themselves refugees from a world they can no longer remember.

Errantry

Elizabeth Hand

This collection of shorts includes ghosts, flying machines, witches, ancient trees, and more than one impossible transformation.

Gideon the Ninth

Tamsyn Muir

The cover blurb promises lesbian necromancers in space, and the pages within do not disappoint.

Harrow the Ninth

Tamsyn Muir

In this sequel to the completely badass Gideon the Ninth, Harrow has become an immortal lyctor by consuming Gideon’s soul. Or has she?

Parable of the Sower

Octavia E. Butler

Lauren Olamina lives in a walled neighborhood in Southern California; it’s dangerous to venture beyond the walls, where there’s little work, less food, and no law.

The Peripheral

William Gibson

Drones, haptics, ocular implants, virtual reality, climate change, nanotechnology, celebrity: like all of Gibson’s novels, The Peripheral is a novel of the future that’s entirely about the present.

Emergent Strategy

adrienne maree brown

“I read sci-fi and visionary fiction as political, sacred, and philosophical text, and I engage with others who read it that way,” writes adrienne maree brown, in this astonishing, radical, and humane book.

Staying with the Trouble

Donna Haraway

“Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future,” declares Donna Haraway in the opening paragraph of this astonishing book.

The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le Guin

A planet named Urras is host to a habitable moon known as Anarres. Some seven generations ago, a group of communist settlers left Urras to build a colony on the moon, after which the communication between the colonists and the planet all but ceased.

Ka

John Crowley

Ka recounts the adventures of a crow named Dar Oakley, who—nearly two thousand years ago—ventured to the underworld with a young girl and stole the gift of immortality she meant to acquire for her fellow humans.

Orality and Literacy

Walter J. Ong

Perhaps the only book I’ve discovered that carefully and thoroughly addresses the differences between oral and literate cultures.

Small Is Beautiful

E. F. Schumacher

Schumacher brilliantly interrogates modern economics and proposes an alternative: a Buddhist economics that takes as its imperative the quality of human life, not the quantity of profit.

Hild

Nicola Griffith

From the scant historical record of Hild of Whitby, Griffith spins an extraordinary story of a girl who learns to navigate the world of kings and thegns.

The Fifth Season

N. K. Jemisin

The first book of “The Broken Earth” trilogy, The Fifth Season tells of a world routinely undone by huge, world ending earthquakes.

“I never set out to write this book,” Mary Ruefle begins. And yet, she did write it, and that contradiction is the first of many.