Read the Best Books Twice

Escapism. Experience. Fascination. Fun. Knowledge. Nuance. The reasons to read are vast and varied. Fiction. Nonfiction. Biography. Humor. So many choices!

I’ve been a reader as long as I can remember, but until I began writing, I read mostly novels, and I mostly read for fun. I’m sure every book I’ve ever read has influenced me in the same way that every person I’ve met has influenced me. By which I mean some have influenced me greatly; others I have no recollection of whatsoever. According to the information in Joshua Foer’s recent book, Moonwalking With Einstein, everything we’ve ever heard, seen, or done is stored in our brain somewhere; remembering it is another story.

Now I read for multiple reasons: enjoyment, sure; knowledge, of course; but also to learn to be a better writer. Reading is as essential to good writing as eating is to being a good cook. Few would argue that to be good at anything, one has to learn and practice. But not just any learning or any practicing. The better the teacher, the better the practice, the better the ability. Why else do students fight to get into the best colleges and willing incur massive debt? Why else would I read The Great Gatsby three times; Atlas Shrugged, The Thorn Birds, Lolita, and Cloud Atlas twice each? Because they are fantastic books that brought out enormous envy in me as a writer. I want those writers and their books to teach me how to be a better writer.

“Read! Read! Read! And then read some more. When you find something that thrills you, take it apart paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word, to see what made it so wonderful. Then use those tricks the next time you write.” – Stephen King

I’m guessing this theory dates back to a casual chat between the likes of Plato and Aristotle while they were soaking in the Roman baths and discussing my good pal, Socrates. Socrates did not write philosophical texts (according to Wikipedia; I wasn’t alive back then to know for sure), but Plato wrote about him so that Aristotle (and the rest of us) could read about him and learn from him.

Thank you, Plato. That was a fine idea you had.

I consider myself a fast learner, but because writing is so important to me, reading has become a different matter. The first time I read a book, I read it for the story, the experience. Those that really, truly move me, I read twice so I can dissect them the way Stephen King suggests. Whether it’s for sentence structure or to learn how a writer relays emotion deep enough to make a grown man cry, I still have so much to learn.

Or in the words of Socrates: I know that I know nothing.

Except … If there’s something to be gained from a book, I know I’ll read it twice.

How about you? What are the books that you’ve read more than once at the expense of every other book on your TBR list? Any specific reason?


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