What’s better than reading? Re-reading

It is far better to devote yourself to a few authors than to get lost among many. — Seneca

I wrote recently about why it’s good to keep count of how many books you read. What I didn’t mention is, re-reading a book should count the same as reading a new book. If not more.

First time through, your brain does a lot of work to map out the structure of the book, its arguments and themes, and a mental model of the concepts being discussed. Researching the book before you jump in helps, but this work still has to be done no matter how much you study in advance.

But the second time through, that’s mostly over. Your mind is free to catch subtleties you missed before. The book reads more clearly. You finish it book faster. You begin to understand the subject on an intuitive level. This is the greatest value in reading: studying a book long enough to internalize its message.

It’s like driving to a new place: it takes forever to get there. But on the way back, everything feels sped-up. You’re familiar with the route now; you know what to expect. The hard brain-work of wiring a fresh path through the neurons is done.

I’d like to re-read a book every month or two, but right now that rarely happens. I get distracted by New Book Sexiness.

Sex is actually a nice metaphor. A lot of people talk about how great it is to read around, sampling a different book every time. But anyone who’s stuck with one book for the long haul knows that this leads to a richer life.

New books are always going to be sexier — it feels almost like an instinct. And if you have a long list of stuff you want to get to, there’s a certain pressure to pick something different off the shelf, in the name of “progress”.

But the re-read always rewards your selection.

The biggest reason to re-read is the huge jump in your retention and understanding of the material. Even just reading a book twice is 200% better than reading it once — OK, I totally just made that up; but I dare you to try it and disagree.

The way my memories of a book feel after one read is like when I listen to a record for the first time. I can identify a few songs I liked, and a few songs I didn’t like. But I can’t describe in detail why: I hardly remember the specific rhythms and melodies, how they sounded, what makes them tick.

When I play an album I’ve listened to dozens of times, I can anticipate every element of the song. I have muscle memory for it. Each song’s neural pathway is rock solid — it’s literally a part of me that I enjoy and understand and feel on a very deep level.

Books are the same. I can recount a few anecdotes and themes from a book on the first pass, but the knowledge feels somehow superficial. It’s tenuous, hanging by a thread on the edge of my brain, ready to be shoved out by whatever new piece of information I pick up next.

With books I’ve read several times, the knowledge feels wedged deep inside my skull, grafted to the very center of my brain. It would take a jackhammer to drive it out of there.

This kind of knowledge goes beyond words. If called upon, I can meditate on the subject and come up with an elegant explanation — or at least a coherent one. But that requires work, because I’m translating the ideas into words from something deeper. Some internal sense language that only the neurons in my head speak.

This is the goal I have for every important book I read. I’m not just trying to read them. I’m devouring them. The whole food-book metaphor is way overplayed, but there’s a reason for that. Books are like few other things in the external world in the way you can make them a part of you. Put them on a small pedestal alongside music, film, painting, and yes, food.

You’d never play a great record once and then move right on to the next one, would you? Avoid assigning your favorite books such an indecorous fate.

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