Reading vs re-reading: the perils of a huge to-read pile

How often do you read a book that you’ve already read (if ever)? Do you ever feel any guilt from slipping between the well-worn covers of an old favourite instead of tackling that towering pile of shiny new books?

This isn’t something that I face that often; I re-read books perhaps two or three times a year, which is pretty good considering that my to-read bookshelves hold nearly 60 titles at the moment (let’s not look at how often I add to those shelves, though). This includes returning to old favourites like Jane EyrePersuasion and Wuthering Heights, and – every so often – a series re-read.

Disney books
Me, acquiring books, yesterday. Probably. (via Giphy)

I haven’t re-read a series in a while; I think my last one was the first four instalments of A Song of Ice and Fire in the run-up to the release of A Dance With Dragons, and I think the fact that the TV show has overtaken the books means I don’t really need to re-read them again for the launch of the next two books.

However, a couple of my favourite authors have returned to book series that most of us thought were done with a long time ago. I now really want to re-read all of Robin Hobb‘s books involving Fitz and the Fool before I buy the paperback of what she says is definitely, absolutely the final FINAL instalment next year. That’s eight pretty huge novels.

Then there’s Tad Williams, who has recently released a novella and the first book in a new trilogy following on from the excellent Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, so now I also want to re-read the original trilogy of doorstops plus the as yet unread novella before I even think about buying the new book.

So that’s 11 books to re-read, ideally in the next 9-10 months, while trying not to feel too guilty about the other 50-odd books looking at me pleadingly from the to-read bookcase. And I’ll probably feel the urge to return to Jane Eyre or Persuasion during that time, too (I also want to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale after watching the excellent series on C4…).

Is it a waste of time to go back to old reads when there are so many lovely, shiny new books coming out every week that I definitely want to read? Last year I read 51 books and will read fewer than that this year, so even if I don’t acquire any more new books until 2019 (hahaha), I’ll still have a backlog come the end of next year. And I could probably just read an online recap or something.

But then again, why should I or anyone else feel guilty about reading books that we’ve already enjoyed? Especially when you can get a lot out of a re-read; the element of surprise might not be there any more, but you’re likely to pick up on things that you missed the first time round, or focus more on getting to know the characters than anticipating the next plot twist.

Oh, LibraryThing

My to-read bookcase
My to-read bookcase

For me, technology has been both my joy and my downfall when it comes to reading. I never really knew how many books I read/acquired each year until I joined LibraryThing, an online book cataloguing platform, back in 2007, and even then I didn’t make a habit of properly tracking my reads until perhaps 2010.

But now that it’s really easy for me to see how many books I read last year and the year before and the year before that and feel gratified by the increasing number (while also being very conscious of the rising number of to-reads). Last year, I think I drove myself to read quicker than I normally would just to push past the magical 50 mark. This year, I’ve been taking my time more, so now I’m behind where I was this time last year.

I suspect that if I abandoned LibraryThing altogether I’d be even slower to get through the to-read pile. But then I wouldn’t get all the great recommendations that I do through the automated recommendation tool and the forums. But then… if I didn’t get those recommendations, perhaps I wouldn’t have so many books to read, and I wouldn’t feel guilty about re-reading!

It’s a hopeless situation. My compromise is to try my hardest to stop being so bothered by how many books I read (and, really, what difference does it make and who really cares?!), focus more on reading better books, and perhaps find some space for another bookcase. And if focusing on quality means returning to books that I already know for a fact to be brilliant, then so be it.

7 thoughts on “Reading vs re-reading: the perils of a huge to-read pile

  1. I love re-reading books. There are a couple that I’ve regularly re-read: Possession, Crime & Punishment, The Grapes of Wrath, The Silver Sword, The Edible Woman. These are my favourites and I get a kick out of the familiarity but also the differences that come with being a different person with different experiences to draw on as time passes.
    I want to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale this year, because of the TV show, and because the first time I read it, Afghanistan and the withdrawal of Russia leaving a power vacuum for the Taliban were big news which had parallels to Atwood’s speculative fiction, whereas now it feels like Trump’s America is using it as a manual.
    Like you, though, I feel guilty about the new books I buy but don’t read, so have become more selective about what I re-read and when. My to read list is still a magnificent 107, but that’s down from 128 last autumn (I’ve read 64 books so far this year, to put that in context). I’ve also rejoined the library to borrow newer books so that I can pretend I’m not adding to the pile!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m glad it’s not just me who feels the guilt! And I definitely agree that re-reading when you’re older and wiser is eye-opening. The second time I read Persuasion was amazing, considering I first read it as a teenager.

    I haven’t been to the library in a few weeks because it feels like I’m putting off making a dent in the TBR pile whenever I do. I’m going to have a proper clearout of books I don’t want to keep (including some TBR malingerers that I’m probably never going to read after all, because I’m now older and wiser!). Then I’ll knuckle down a bit to get my series re-reads and TBR reduction done at the same time. Hopefully.


    • Don’t we make tackling the book pile seem like a chore? Ha! I sometimes think I overthink it, and who’s keeping tabs on me anyway? Only me.

      I’m trying to do a mix of one or two library books per month and the rest off my pile. I feel really strongly about using my library and requesting new books. We’re a Tory-led council here and I won’t give them an excuse to cut a library in a Labour ward.

      I read Persuasion when I was in my 20s and hated it. I read the Guardian piece recently where authors chose their favourite Austen book and made a case for it. My lovely Margaret Drabble chose Persuasion and brought out some aspects I was too full of the impatience of being in my 20s to grasp first time around. I found Anne sappy and infuriating. I’m going to give it another whirl. Since it’s Miss Austen’s birthday and all.


      • Exactly! If I couldn’t see the numbers it probably wouldn’t feel like such an effort! Do try Persuasion again – I didn’t get it on my first read either.


  3. I absolutely adore persuasion,even more so than pride and prejudice.Why should we feel guilty re reading what we enjoy.The sign of a good writer is one you can go back to and still feel that anticipation and joy.We all have a to read pile and it’s comforting to know it’s always there to greet us when we need it.I panic if I do not have anything new to read .x

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    • Yes, that’s a good point – it IS nice knowing I have a good stock of books to read! When I was a child I used to take out 6 books every week and devour them all within 3 days, often leaving me impatient to get back to the library again. Glad that’s not the case now (although it’d be nice to get through 6 books a week these days!).


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