I'm looking at the shelves in my living room and I stopped counting at 140 books with three shelves to go. That's just one room where I stash books. There's two others, plus an office, plus some boxes I've never unpacked, not to mention the digital bits representing another 100 plus titles on my Kindle.
I've read almost all of them. I will re-read very few of them. A handful I will re-read over and over again.
I don't re-read books all that often because every moment not spent with a new book is time where I fall further behind in my — admittedly impossible — quest to read everything, but re-reading retains an important spot in my reading life.
It tells me where I've been, who I was, who I am now and maybe even who I'm going to become.
As a writer on the lookout for things I can steal … I mean lessons to learn from others … there's a handful of books I keep as talismans. I periodically sample them to remind myself what I'm aiming for: Denis Johnson's "Jesus' Son" for its simple and beautiful and crazy words; Katherine Dunn's "Geek Love" to remind myself to be fearless; "The Sportswriter" by Richard Ford when I'm thinking about breathing life into characters; and Donald Barthelme's stories to show me how sometimes not making any sense makes perfect sense. I pick these books up and dip into them at random in search of inspiration that almost always morphs into work avoidance.
For some reason, funny books make for some of my best re-reading, particularly campus satires like David Lodge's "Small World," Francine Prose's "Blue Angel" and Richard Russo's "Straight Man." I re-read at least one of these a year, maybe to keep myself from feeling too important in my day job as a college teacher.
As I move through my post-post-post adolescence (also known as my 40's) I've been re-reading some of the first books that captured my younger selves. A small part of this drive may be nostalgia, but I think the bigger part is reminding myself that the things that made me book crazy as a 10-year-old are the same things that make me book crazy now. This past year, I re-read the entire "The Dark is Rising" series by Susan Cooper and found them just as spooky and thrilling as when I read them 30-plus years ago. If I had a time machine, I'd tell sixth-grade John that he had good taste.
I'd also tell him that he shouldn't wear that blue-and-red striped rugby shirt with the hole in it on class picture day because he looks pretty stupid — and kind of homeless.
There are some books I loved, but will never re-read for fear of losing that affection. "Catcher in the Rye" is one. I'm concerned that I'd find Holden Caulfield more annoying than inspiring. For a number of years, I marked the release date for the next Clive Cussler "Dirk Pitt" novel on my calendar. I'm sure I'd still love the adventures, but the writing teacher in me couldn't manage to overlook the leaden prose and wooden dialogue.
For some books, the initial reading experience was so perfect, some kind of ideal melding of book, time and personal place, that I know I can never recapture the feeling, and so I won't try. Charles Baxter's "Saul and Patsy," I'm looking at you here.
And of course, every so often I try to re-read the books I'm supposed to like, but for some reason don't. One day, Virginia Woolf and I will meet minds. I just know it.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. "A Trick of the Light" by Louise Penny
2. "Bury Your Dead" by Louise Penny
3. "Redshirts" by John Scalzi
4. "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes
5. "The Jennifer Morgue" by Charles Stross
— Lisa M., Hebron, Ind.