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The Visitations of the Suck Fairy

August 7, 2015

I read three kinds of novels: the ones I’m happy reading once, the ones that hold up to rereads, and the ones that I think are going to hold up to a reread and then … don’t. It’s apparently rather hard to write a novel perfect enough I can reread it with pleasure.

I’ve taken to rereading some of my favourite authors and novels in my downtime at home. Bathtub books, bedside books, I-can’t-be-bothered-to-be-productive-tonight books, that sort of thing. I’ve also been “rereading” by following along with the Mark Reads Discworld project, which is now up to Witches Abroad. I’ve “reread” other things with Mark as well, the last couple years. I’ve probably reread about 15 books in the last 24 months, with everything added up.

So yeah, I’ve been rereading and recently started thinking about the experience. It’s been largely positive, because many of the books have held up over time, but there have been depressing incursions by the suck fairy. (I do not own that metaphor.) I’ll get to those in a second. First, though, let’s unpack what I mean by “holds up.”

The perfect reread, for me, is one part nostalgia, one part entertainment, one part deeper understanding. I choose rereads because I remember enjoying them, because I think I’ll enjoy them a second (or fifth) time, and because I suspect I’ll either catch more of the jokes or have a better understanding of the context. I’ve recently realized that The Secret Garden, which I reread so much as a kid that my copy is starting to fall apart, is grounded in the Gothic tradition which I’ve only become aware of in the last three years, so that’s back on my to-read pile. To pick one example.

The perfect reread has also not been visited by the suck fairy, by which I mean that the writing is as good as I remember it being and that there are not sexist, racist, or similar moments that were clearly not there the first time. (Hence the suck fairy.) So Good Omens holds up, as do The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, much of the Vorkosigan Saga, American Gods, The Importance of Being Earnest, Dragonsinger, The Odyssey, and the Peter Grant novels. A few of those hold up because I knew to expect a different outlook going in, but the point stands.

The Discworld novels, on the other hand …. I don’t think I’d have noticed the suck fairy if I hadn’t been following along with Mark and his commentary. I think I’d have cheerily laughed at the jokes and gone along for the ride while being vaguely unsettled by the things that have kind of always vaguely unsettled me about the books. Mark’s just helped me put a finger on what and why, and pointed out some things I’d never even noticed. (Thanks, Mark! No, really.)

I’m talking about how, in the reread so far and some of the books coming up still, there are always jokes about fat women and men not understanding women ever and dwarves not really having gender except that they default to male. There are power dynamics and character tropes that keep cropping up too, and they’re not always good ones. That sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the Discworld books, they’re still absolutely seminal to how I write and think and read, but there’s this patina on them now….

This isn’t the only time in the last while that I’ve have to deal with the “I like this author but” problem. I can’t bring myself to love the bad bits, but I can’t bring myself to dislike the writer, so I end up reading with awareness, acceptance, and a certain degree of forgiveness. I find myself saying, “I like how so-and-so does this thing, and that thing, but I wish they’d stop doing these other things.” Usually I append, “And I will do those other things better, because I see the problem.”

(There are also books that I hear great things about and then the suck fairy gets to it before I can read it the first time. Just finished one of those, so this obviously isn’t an exclusively rereading phenomenon.)

Overall, I really enjoy rereading, though. I pick up on a lot of stuff I missed the first time, especially in a series because I know how things turn out later on. I can concentrate more on how a writer builds suspense or surprises me, when the first time I was too caught up in the story. I’m constantly reading, so I’m constantly learning things and putting them in better context, so I understand more of the era the book was written or set in, or I notice references I might not have, and so on. I love all that stuff because it’s almost like discovering the book again, and because I’ve always liked patterns and puzzles and unexpected connections.

I’m not planning to stop my rereads anytime soon. I have to get through The Secret Garden first, as well as the Toby Daye novels and the Shadow series and The Canterbury Tales, plus the rest of the Discworld books and The Doomsday Book which I’m reading for the second time right now. (Holds up so far!) By the time I’m done those, I’ll probably have a whole list of other books to dip into again. It’ll certainly be time to read Dragonsinger again, at the very least.

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