Are There Books You Should Reread Every Year?

I have friends who have books they read every year. Rereading the same book repeatedly seems to offer them new insights on each passing.

Stephen Marche claims to have read Hamlet over 100 times. According to him, this extreme rereading, “provides the physical activity of reading without the mental acuity usually required.” This allows him to appreciate the text in a completely different way.

I’m fascinated by rereading, although I’m afraid I’ve done very little of it. I’ve read hundreds of books which sit on my bookshelf, barely remembered.

From an information standpoint, rereading seems absurdly wasteful. It must be the case that you get the most information from a book on its first pass through. Subsequent readings may catch some missed information, but surely less than the first. In a world of nearly-infinite books, why spend countless hours revisiting old ones?

Rereading as Structured Thinking

But behind that reasoning, there’s an assumption. Namely, that the main value of a book is the information it provides.

Rereading may be horribly inefficient from the process of gathering information, but perhaps its virtues lie in structuring your ability to think about a topic better. Knowing the exact content of a text means you need far fewer mental faculties to read it. The ease of reading opens up more mental space for contemplation.

Structured thinking is actually quite difficult to do. The mind wanders and flits about to different daydreams and emotions. It can be difficult to sustain contemplation of an important topic for the time required to develop an insight about it.

Writing helps structure thinking. Long before I wrote a blog, I kept a journal. Not a log of daily events, but a canvas to sketch out my thinking. Many problems which were fuzzy in my head became clear once I wrote them down.

But most writing is unguided. It helps organize thoughts, but it doesn’t give a template for having them. I’ve started journal entries with the intention to write about one topic and ended up moving to another. Writing constrains some aspects of the thinking process, freeing mental resources for others, but it does so in a particular way. Sometimes you need a different type of structuring to get the kind of thinking you desire.

Cued Thoughts and Rereading

Rereading has some virtues in that, once read, the material becomes a lot easier. However, the act of reading still primes your mind to think on tangents roughly related to the source material. Ritual re-reading, therefore, acts as a guide to your thinking patterns, pushing you along familiar grooves, but giving you the freedom to discover new ideas within the same topic.

I’ve only reread a handful of books, so in this practice I’m a novice. But for the few books I have reread (such as The Count of Monte Cristo), I found the predictability of the story allowed me to focus on other things on subsequent visits.

Rereading to Cultivate Mental Habits

Although I’ve reread few books, I’ve relistened to many audio books multiple times. Years ago, I remember putting the same CDs of a Zig Ziglar or Brian Tracy book into a walkman every time I went for a morning jog. I heard the same tapes dozens of times.

The value here wasn’t so much informational. With all due respect to Ziglar and Tracy, much of their writing struck me as common sense. Given the abundance of story telling, and easy explanations, it certainly wasn’t so dense that I couldn’t get the main points from one or two listenings.

Instead, the value was to cultivate a way of thinking. I was new to setting goals, being organized and productive, trying to start a business. These were domains where I hadn’t cultivated strong mental habits, so simply hearing ideas once or twice wasn’t enough.

Now I wonder whether I should be repeating the same process with new mental habits. Should I be cultivating discipline by rereading the Bhagavad Gita, or combating my perfectionism by rereading the Dao De Jing?

What do you think? Are there any books you’ve read multiple times? Are there books you’d recommend others read repeatedly? Share your thoughts in the comments. (HT to Tyler Cowen for inspiring this post)

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  • Scott Young

    Shawn,

    Siddartha was a good one. I’d definitely add that to my re-read pile.

    -Scott

  • Estella

    Hi Scott,

    When I reread books, I find that the feeling is quite similar to visiting a familiar place from your childhood, and realizing how much you have changed. I used to reread 7 habits of Highly Effective Teens, Personal Development for Smart People, and the Harry Potter series for that reason. I remember the first time I read 7 Habits, I realized that I making too many withdrawals from my PBA. Going back a year later to reread it, I realize how much my feelings changed from reading it (a lot less guilty). 🙂

  • sandy

    Along the same lines, I started taking Coursera courses (all humanities classes) last summer for fun and plan on re-taking the same ones again so I can re-read the literature. I think the second time around, I won’t feel so rushed to finish the books and can participate more in the forums. I might even write the essays again though I would choose different aspects of the books to explore. It seems the re-reading, forum participation, re-writing of essays would all help expand my understanding.

  • Cathy Hasty

    I have re read James Hollis Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally Really Grow up and June Singer’s Boundaries of the Soul. I often re read sections of books and far too often I will pick up a book that I did not remember reading, but that has many comments and underlining that indicate I did! Thanks for writing.

  • Wilson Ng

    I usually scan the contents on the first pass to get an idea of the flow of the book. Then I’ll intently read the book on my iPad on the second pass. I often highlight certain passages and add my personal notes. Then I’ll take the highlights and notes to create my own book summary. I save this book summary as a PDF or ePub file. I drop the ePub or PDF into the iBooks app and sync that file to my iPad and iPhone. I have the quick guide version of key passages that I want to reinforce. Habits or viewpoints that I would like to remember.

    I don’t look at the original source unless I wanted to expand and revisit some of the key passages I highlighted.

  • Bill

    I think some books are great for re-reading because you can take a look at them through the lens of experience. For me, the 7 habits by Covey is one. I re-read it about every 18 months or re-listen if I am traveling. I find that pieces of the information are taken differently over time.

    For me the key or driver of re-reading a book is, if I have read it the first time and felt that there are more gems to find it goes back to the re-read pile. I love books like this because they give you something great to hold onto now while making you wonder what you missed.

  • Mikael

    I’ve tried rereading some books. Here are my findings:

    1. I often get disappointed. The book doesn’t say what I remembered from the first time.

    2. I also often get disappointed because I don’t interpret what it says the same way the second time I read it.

    3. Sometimes, I pick up a valuable fact that I missed at the first reading.

    4. The book often gets very boring on the second reading.

  • Priyankush Deka

    I’ve reread a few books which I had found difficulty to understand completely at the first time. And I think that it’s not a bad habit. Presently, I am going through ‘A Brief History of Time’ by Stephen Hawking and this is for the 2nd time. Because I couldn’t make out all the concepts of the book at the first time. This process of rereading books for better understanding is like closing the unexpected holes of a wheel tyre. Even I used to read the chapters of physics and chemistry for at least a 2nd time. It’s not only because that I can’t understand all these at the first attempt, it’s because that the new concepts enter my brain permanently after rereading. But, unfortunately, in case of chemistry, though I understand most of the concepts, I can’t remember anything even after two days. I hope that metaphor will be helpful in this case.

  • Reece

    I am totally on board with re-reading (but only good books). It’s been shown that people don’t remember everything they read as it is a very passive approach to learning – at least that’s what I blame my goldfish memory on!
    In all seriousness, I find that if a book grabbed my attention the first time, I’ll make sure I read it a second time. I don’t know why, but I’ll always gain a lot more from it the second time around. I’ve read Rich Dad Poor Dad many times, as well as Turning Pro, and the E-Myth Revisited, and each time I read them, I learn something new.
    Thanks for the interesting post.
    Reece

  • DJ

    A book that has a different perspective to offer that interest me may be worth a second read, especially if it has a rich content. Usually after a period of incubation, a second read allows me to assimilate the content into known metaphorical models common to my experience base. I don’t really call this structured thinking and is second nature. I call this more a crystallization process or an aha moment. For me a second read is less about information and more about self discovery.

  • Kris

    I have read “Getting Things Done” by David Allen at least 10 times. It has changed my life, and I continue to learn more each time I read it. Great post!

  • Shane

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this topic recently, and was glad to see this article pop up in my email. My position on this at the moment(still in the process of refining it) is that re-reading is a practice that should be avoided, for many of the same reasons you went over in your opening paragraph. I don’t disagree with the argument that reviewing old information frequently can help cultivate mental habits or lead to new insights. However I think it is wasteful(in my opinion) to actually reread or re-listen to parts or the entirety of a text. Instead I’m of the opinion that efforts should be made to create reviewable material for you to look back upon at your convenience as you read through the first time, as well(if possible) find outside sources that have already this for you. Currently I use a system of margin and notecard annotation to do this, and at a later date I review and then transcribe the margin/notecard writing over to a word document. I’ve used this system in the past and just recently started it up again(while thinking about the subject of rereading) and think it has the same effect as you laid out in the second half of your article but with far less time commitment, along with the added benefit of more mindful reading the first time through.

  • Mackenzie

    Personally, I find rereading essential for retention. For me, it’s much the same as learning a musical instrument or second language: I have to repeat scales or flash cards multiple times to have something permanently learned. However, I feel like some people pick up the essentials more quickly than I do on the first read-through.

    Rereading novels is much like rewatching a movie, for me. I’m much more prone to pick up on foreshadowing and other literary devices on repeated consumptions.

  • Christian Westli

    I love rereading. Usually if I start a book that it is not likely I will reread, I stop reading and give it away. Most of the books I own are books I am planning to reread, else why keep them? I reread books for various reasons. Some books I reread for the language; if it’s good I usually notice new things to appreciate every time. When it comes to faction I reread if I feel that there still are things I want to learn it. I usually only keep a faction book for rereading if I need it for reference or learning.

  • Snow

    I like to reread Johnathan Livingston seagull. It gives me different point of views on the situations I think about. I have been reading this over and over again for more than 6 years now.

  • Cathy in NZ

    I have re-read a number of art-related books – each time I decide to read them, it is for a different reason AND I always see/learn something I didn’t see the first time around…

    These are books I request from the city wide library lending service but one book I do have which is regularly re-read is “Living the Creative Life: Ideas and Inspiration from Working Artists” au: Rice Freeman-Zachery… which I own.

    I also often read, and then search online about an author or contents of a book which I return to just as often for reason – looking for something same but different

  • P.N.John

    Rereading is not just an option but an absolute necessity if you want to get more out of a book.But if it is mere enjoyment you seek, perhaps reading another book is better.

  • Doug

    I have read the book Decisive by the Heath brothers multiple times. If there is one thing in life to be good at, decision making might be the one. So if you have a well written book, why not read it multiple times when each reading gives you a better understanding and perspective.

    For those that are unfortunately familiar with the kids show Teletubbies, you will recall that the 30 minute episode was actually a 15 minute episode repeated twice. That was decided through research that showed that it is hard to construct an accurate mental model with just one viewing, and that kids needed multiple viewings to create and refine their mental models. Additionally, that same 30 minute episode would be repeated multiple times in a season.

    I realize we are not kids watching teletubbies, but I do believe the underlying principle holds for adults as well.

    Doug

  • Jessica

    I reread Mindset by Carol Dweck and The Gift of Imperfection by Brene Brown on a regular basis. Mostly because I forget the concepts. It’s so alien to my regular way of thinking that any meaningful behavioral or mental change doesn’t last very long. I’m now on my 4 time through both and I feel like my intentions and actions are finally matching and staying matched in regards to perfectionism and the growth mindset.

  • Yuri

    Some books you cannot just read once. Mortimer Adler states in his How To Read a Book you usually need 4 or more reads: Elementary, Inspectional, Analytical and Syntopical, till you really understand its content.
    Books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Think and Grow Rich I would read 30+ times!

  • Anand

    Thanks Scott for this article. I have been following the re-reading practice for quite a few books over the last decade or so. The ones I pick up every day of the work-week, in the morning, include The Magic of Thinking Big, The Seven Habits, and have recently added The 8th habit to this collection for re-reading. This helps me stay focussed.

    During my college years, I read Erich Segal’s “The Class”, “Prizes” and “Doctors” over and over again…the stories were great, the writing flawless, and gave a peek to me in my life in the coming post-college years!

    Besides, I have had very busy work-days when I gained new insights by going through my work-list first thing in the morning.

    I read Steve Job’s biography – by Walter Issacson – and in there it is mentioned that Steve used to read “The autobiography of a yogi” once every year! That shows there’s some value in re-reading.

  • Edwin Jansen

    Rereading books is very beneficial especially with books relating to personal development. Some books are packed with ‘hints’ in multiple locations within the text and as you reread these books, you read them in a new unit of time. You are a different person when you reread the book than the person you were before, hence you can get different new insights out of the same book a year later. I reread most often books like Think and Grow Rich, The Magic of Thinking Big, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Ask and It is Given.

  • Edwin Jansen

    Rereading books is very beneficial especially with books relating to personal development. Some books are packed with ‘hints’ in multiple locations within the text and as you reread these books, you read them in a new unit of time. You are a different person when you reread the book than the person you were before, hence you can get different new insights out of the same book a year later. I reread most often books like Think and Grow Rich, The Magic of Thinking Big, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Ask and It is Given.

  • Георгий Ланец

    “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, “Convict Conditioning” – just for my workout progress.

  • Георгий Ланец

    “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, “Convict Conditioning” – just for my workout progress.

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