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)

  • John Sonmez

    I re-read How to Win Friends and Influence People at least once a year and I often re-read the War of Art.

    Both books contain important reminders that help me to live and act how I want to live and act. I always get something new from them when I read them again.

  • Will

    “The ease of reading opens up more mental space for contemplation.”
    I’ve encountered this while rewatching movies. E.g., I recently rewatched “Saving Mr. Banks” and was able to spot more of the film’s themes and motifs.

    Re: remembering what you read: If you highlight/take notes the first time around, you can reread faster. This applies well to nonfiction, but I wonder if it’d apply to fiction as well.

  • Jill

    Don’t laugh, but I’ve read Where the Red Fern Grows numerous times since I was a child. Just thinking about it makes me want to grab it off the shelf right now and start rereading it again. Obviously, this kind of read is not for information I want to instill. To me, it evokes an emotional response that sometimes I just long for along with a simple, living back in the day kind of feeling. I’ve done the same thing with the short children’s book Pink and Say. Never gets old or wastes time.

  • Shakeel

    Hi Scott, I agree with you regarding the rereading part. I have moved from one book to another without properly absorbing the insights and putting any learnings into practice. The other day, I was reading a book and was half way through it when I realized that I have already read this. Since all knowledge is remembering, I am afraid that my knowledge will not increase if I keep forgetting what I read. So, this year I am planning to reread some books and your post reconfirms what I have been thinking from a few years but have not been able to put in practice.

    Thanks,
    Shakeel

  • James Cetkovski

    Even if you want to look at reading purely as information transfer, how much information do you think the average person absorbs from one reading? Personally I think I can recognize a lot of material that I’ve only gone over once, but I’m not at all confident that I’d be able recall it/synthesize it usefully with other information. You seem to imply a law of diminishing returns with each pass over a text, but I’m not sure that’s true. It depends on what you consider to be useful knowledge of a text. It seems plausible to me that reading x/2 books rather than x might actually provide a great deal more utility in terms of retained, mobilizable information.

  • Duff

    I’m currently re-reading several books including The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (which I first read over a decade ago) and the works of several ancient Stoic philosophers.

    I’m finding the process very insightful, mostly because I haven’t read these works in a long time, and because I find them very personally important and valuable.

    I think the distinction here is perhaps between information and knowledge. Contemporary teenagers complain that school is useless – if they need to know something, they can look it up on the internet. But information is not knowledge – only by thinking deeply about the topic and continually making connections with other ideas do we “own” an idea and thus make it into knowledge.

    I think re-reading and repeatedly returning to key information is one way that we turn it into knowledge, make it our own, and in the case of knowledge like that of Stoicism, live its principles.

  • Michael Hogan

    I don’t read just to gain information. I also read for pleasure and to gain insight. There are several books that I have reread over time. Memory is imperfect and what I remember of a text and what I see and experience when I reread it may be quite different. Also, I have changed significantly over the years. My appreciation of Hesse’s Steppenwolf is very different from the perspective of a grandfather than it was when I was a 20 year old undergraduate.

    Even for those texts that are primarily reference or information, I find that I gain more with rereading as the framework into which I can fit the information is now different, frequently richer.

  • John Goode

    One of my intellectual hobbies is learning about the brain – how it functions; where different tasks are processed; how memory works etc.

    I have read the “Why students don’t like school” book by Willingham maybe six times with intervals of 3 to 6 months.

    Each time I get more insight as I can make new associations between what he is teaching in the book and my new knowledge of how the brain works.

    In addition since I write observations, comments and questions in the book, I can see the how my thoughts have evolved through time and I can be reminded of tidbits that I had forgotten.

  • Greg Coladonato

    Scott,

    I think your point that “you get the most information from a book on its first pass through” is valid, but some are of the opinion that there is more to reading than getting information.

    Some types of books contain little more than information, and such books are probably not worth re-reading.

    Some small subset of books contain the sort of material that can lead one to understanding, and some smaller subset yet, to wisdom or enlightenment. I will hazard to proffer a few candidate authors: Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Newton, Tolstoy.

    Books by such authors are best read not for information, but for insight into the world and into man that are not easily grasped the first time through.

  • Adam

    I’ve heard from two excellent English professors that they don’t believe in reading, they believe in rereading. I’m starting to understand, but they also emphasize rereading only the best that has been written. I often understand what I’m reading, but I’ll forget it within a month if I don’t do anything with it or write about it. Rereading more important books helps cement ideas and knowledge so you aren’t caught with your pants down if you ever end up discussing those things in a group setting.

  • Aidan

    This is a really great point, Scott. Bill Clinton said he re-reads the meditations by Marcus Aurelius once a year.

    Nasim Taleb made one of his resolutions for 2015 “Do not read more than one new book a week — if needed re-read (and read no book you wouldn’t reread.) “

    Right now I’m listening to Tony Robbins personal power program and I’ve listened to each tape several times, for the same reason you said, to absorb a way of thinking rather than knowledge.

    Question: I thought the Bhagavad Gita was a religious text, in what way are you finding it useful for cultivating discipline.

    Ryan Holiday has an interesting alternative to re-reading each book you may like: http://thoughtcatalog.com/ryan

  • JJ

    There are several books I’ve reread countless times (actually, I’ve just listened to the audiobook versions many times in the past 2 or so years since I have a 1hr commute each way):

    Antifragile by Nassim Taleb
    4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss
    The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
    80/20 Manager by Richard Koch

    It’ll take many pages to explain the gist of each book (Google if you’d like to know more) but I’ll review each of the above books (via audio) on my commute at least 2 or 3 times a year. There’s a ton of great insight in each and I end up rediscovering so much during every read through.

  • Anna

    I agree, Scott, rereading is a forgotten virtue. I’m an obsessive learner and I tend to watch my favorite TV shows and movies repeatedly, and I also used to read my favorite books over and over when I was a kid. These days I tend to neglect rereading because there are so many new books out there to read, and I can’t resist them! However, I think repetition has its benefits in the learning process, and our minds can process things in different ways (and comprehend them more fully) when we review them. Good reminder!

  • Supraja

    I am re-reading “8 steps to a pain free back” after 2 years. I had always thought I had grasped everything the book has to say but in fact, the last time I read it I had only paid attention to what helped me back then and I didn’t have to pay attention to anything else.
    After the birth of a child and my body changing dramatically from before, now other aspects of what I had missed before make sense to me. They did not apply to me two years ago.
    So what I am trying to say is that since my life changed since two years ago, my perspective of things and hence the information I draw from books has also changed.

  • Arnold

    I’ve reread Anthony Robbins and Dale Carnegies books several times. I’ve read a lot of self help stuff, but those are best. I always learn a lot when I reread them. Rereading is a great habit, thanks for posting about it!

  • Kaisa

    Rereading books is awesome!
    I read some books again every now and then, to measure my personal growth against how I feel about the book now, compared to what I felt before, and to “meet old friends”, in a way.
    My favourites to read time after time include the books of Peter Hœg (Smilla’s sense of snow, especially), Jasper Fforde, Iain M. Banks, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Shipping News by Annie Proulx, to name just a few.
    Yes, I have an almost endless reading list of new material too, and I’m making my slow way through it, but sometimes I feel the need to go back to the characters and places of familiar books and see the world through them again to know how far I’ve come.
    On the other hand, if the material needing to be re-read was something more of educational sort, it would be a sign to me that I didn’t do the reading right in the first place, or I wasn’t that interested, in that particular book, at that time, after all.

  • Kenneth

    You’ve used spaced repetition previously. Would using SR not be sufficient?

  • J

    Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. I must have read and reread that book 800,000 times.

  • Duncan Smith

    The trick with rereading for learning purposes is verifying that the rereading is having any effect. It’s easy enough when reading a book for the first time to have it be a passive process. The second time around, it’s even easier to trick yourself into thinking that something is happening. In Stephen Marche’s article, he acknowledges that he re-read Wodehouse “for comfort.” I suspect that this is the most common motivation for rereading. Marche wrote a PhD dissertation on Hamlet, but I’ll bet he could have done that in less than 100 re-reads. So the rest of them may have been related to comfort as well (or procrastination). I know I have re-read textbook pages as a way to avoid finding a more effective way to learn the material.

    Cal recently wrote about the idea index method of reading (http://calnewport.com/blog/201…. Maybe once a book stops producing any new ideas for the reader, it’s time to move on to the next one.

  • Jacky Tran

    I think this could be applied to learning subjects as well. For example, when learning a subject like math, it is not sufficient to solve a problem once to fully grasp a concept – one must do it again and again over a period of time to really gain understanding and mastery.

  • Noel Lackey

    Think and grow rich, listen to in the car almost every day, something new there everytime

  • Lindsay Miller

    Two of the best reasons I’ve found to reread something, I think you’ve not fully addressed.

    1. For those precious few that, upon reaching their end, make you think, “wow, this is enormous, this is so important and so vital to my place in the world,” it seems foolish to ignore this extra value you’ve identified, to lump them in with all other things, defined simply by the amount of time they take to complete.

    If it makes you swoon, lights you up, invigorates and inspires you in that rare way, don’t allow your logical efficiency-driven mind to convince you that rereading is redundant. This is important. Moreover….

    2. Since your last reading of a particular book, you’ve read other works on topics both distant and related, you’ve lived more life with new experiences, the world has continued to spin and transform, for better or worse.

    Beyond familiarity with the work, this, I think, is largely what “opens up more mental space for contemplation” and “[gives] you the freedom to discover new ideas within the same topic.”

    New reserves of thought are available each round as fodder for novel insights, new material is interwoven with this key work that grows more robust with each strand.

    Though the words may be the same each time, the person reading them is always different.

  • William

    I re-read some texts (novels, plays, poetry mostly) regularly because I am an English teacher. I am always amazed at what is “new” in my re-reading: things I hadn’t noticed before or had been forgotten. I also find that I enjoy the same emotional responses at certain points in same texts.

  • Philip

    Hey,
    I red How To Win Friends And Influence People from Dale Carnegie several times and I’ll recommend everyone read it at least once. The given advice is timeless and the told storys are nice to read and to remember. Especially after taking Scotts awesome courses!;-)

    Best,
    Philip

  • Marvin

    The following three books I will probably re-read throughout my life.

    1. Unlimited Power- Tony Robbins
    2. The Seven Habits- Stephen Covey
    3. The Art of Non-Conformity-Chris Guillebeau
    (these are also almost as good)
    4. How to Win Friends and Influence People- Dale Carnegie
    5. The Power of Less- Leo Babauta

    Most books aren’t worth reading twice. Those that are should be read much more than twice.

  • Dana Griffin

    I try to re-read How to Win Friends and Influence People at least once a year. Also, I just finished my second read of Gary Keller’s “The One Thing.” Most of us cannot absorb all of the information in the first read of new material because our brains do not have connecting schema. Once we’ve read something impactful, our subconscious starts searching for examples and metaphors. On the subsequent read, we now have schema to attach it to and we can both remember and act on it better than the first time around.

    I know people that have read the Bible once a year for 60 years and still get new information and inspiration from it.

  • Shawn

    I have found it a joy to reread a couple of books that have been especially meaningful to me. I have found it interesting to note that I have taken a different message from each as I have been in different circumstances in my life.
    Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
    Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

  • Nur

    I agree with Duff: rereading enables one to turn information into knowledge. It also gives one a portal into the author’s mind. It’s like peeling away the layers of an onion. If you reread a book enough times you begin to identify the chunks in the author’s brain. You may even be able to identify the source of the author’s ideas without being told by the author.
    I love 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and I have read it a few times. The last time I read it, I discovered, at least it seemed to me, that the book borrowed heavily from the philosophy of raj yoga. Having recently been exposed to raj yoga, I experienced the 7 habits book in a new way, a profound way. It read more like a spiritual text, rather than a self-help book.

  • Lonny Meinecke

    This is very nice Scott — thank you. Rereading definitely allows discovery you cannot get on the first go-round. I would contribute, that there are things we notice on the first reading, too, which never happen again either. Your blog reminds me of James’ wonderful insight, how every moment is utterly unique, even if we do the very same thing. It makes us mindful not to postpone whatever novelty we spot or curiosity we would like to explore by “saving it for later”… when it comes to “later”, it won’t be quite like right now would have been. I feel that is part of what you share for us here — sometimes it’s a good idea to revisit books, or physical locations, or people, over and over again (expecting something new will pop up). When something really moves us, it will move us in a new way every time we see it again. Nicely done –thank you for sharing this. — Lonny

  • Matthew N.

    I think some level of re-reading is worthwhile, I tend to go back to the Effective Executive by Peter Drucker, the writings of Marcus Aurelius, and Mans Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel. I confess most contemporary writing is a bit too “self help-ie” for me.

  • Greg

    Right now I’m rereading “The Neverending Story”, one of my all-time favorites in fiction, as well as in life wisdom.

    It’s quite interesting, because in the past 15 years…

    1. my outlook on life changed significantly and I gained a lot of experience
    2. I also learned a lot about fiction writing (mostly through Randi Ingermanson).

    This makes it really intriguing as now I can see the book from different perspectives than earlier, and in a richer detail. But I still think it’s a masterpiece 🙂

    Greg

  • Patricia Christianson

    Recall (stop reading after a paragraph, a page, a section, or a chapter, and recall what you have just read) is a much better practice than rereading, unless much time has passed between readings.

    I read the Bible once a year, and like J said earlier, I have read Home for a Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown approximately 800,000 times.

  • Leandro Piccini

    Olá Scott,

    Espero que não se incomode em eu escrever esse comentário em português.

    Esse artigo veio em um momento muito oportuno, pois neste exato momento estou relendo Foco de Daniel Goleman. Estou experimentando agora a questão da releitura, percebi que muitas informações ainda estavam frescas em minha mente, (li o livro há 1 ano) Mas algumas informações se tornaram mais claras agora. Concordo com seu pensamento a respeito de adquirir mais informação ao invés de reler.

    Alguns livros merecem serem relidos. Pois ultimamente tenho acreditado mais na informação correta do que simplesmente no acumulo de informações.

    Mais uma vez obrigado, grande abraço do Brasil.

    Att,
    Leandro Piccini

  • Felicia Maldonado

    I read the Bible over and over again. It’s like a mirror and is the only book that foretold the future accurately in advance. I also get God’s feelings about life. This book has truly helped me be successful in more ways than one.

  • Josh

    If I get a great book I know I will get alot out of, I’ll read a chapter once quickly, then again with a pen to underline my favourite points & make notes in the margins. I retain so much more by this process

  • Pamela Thomas

    I have reread several books. Some three times especially when those books are the ones I am studying for any particular reason. I also reread when there is nothing new at that particular moment to read. Then there are some books that require so much concentration when reading that a second and third reading is necessary.

  • Berlin Go

    There are books worth rereading. When I was 6 or 7 I constantly reread my childcraft how and why library books.. all 15 volumes. There is something valuable in knowing something in passing and another by heart so that if you forget, you know exactly where to find it. Each reread brings forth new insights and separate tangential thoughts. I would reread a lot of books.. including the hunger games trilogy, harold robbins and sydney sheldon books and the tales of the otori.

  • Kathleen Donaghy

    As a psychologist, I highlight and annotate every book i read. Not sure if this counts, but then I can quickly refresh what I learned from each book by glancing at what I’ve marked in it, rather than re-reading every word. I consider each book to contribute useful concepts for working with patients and as I am able to teach the concepts, it is a useful approach for retaining the info for myself; hence it provides a 2-way benefit. Also provides a great way to find quotes when I’m writing on various topics.

  • Don Fowler

    Hi,

    I agree with what you say about rereading non-fiction, but do not agree with you about rereading fiction. In fact, I have reread several fiction books more than once, and gotten something out of each time.

    Yours,
    Don

  • Calvin

    This is precisely why the classics are called classics. You keep going back to these original texts and you always get something new.
    -Great post Scott

  • Yining

    Great post! It confused me for a while, I always depend on the instinct thing, if the books are really hard to understand, like mathematic ones, it really worth reading a few more times in order to get the really clear information and deeply understanding. On the other hand, if I felt it’s easy to understand, I will make better and clearer notes than usual when I read these books, e.g. getting things done etc. So I can check what I’ve forgotten when I use these knowledge to make my life efficient, it could save me some time. This notes method I learned from you, Scott, it really helps me learning especially when the knowledge need to be quick understood and sorted, just like the information in easy and introductory books. After reading this post, I find out my method is just limit. Thanks!

  • Michael Gray

    I recall only rereading How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book itself, if I remember correctly, recommends this as a brush up. The basic techniques it describes are simple and easy to recall, but it helps to brush up on specific techniques as life changes. I’ve returned to books I never finished, even one book I started when I was in elementary school. Also, when I study a text, I reread sentence by sentence, on rushed occasions, paragraphs are skimmed and reread.

  • Shirley

    I have read A Little Princess for hundreds of times
    and it has even been a part of me.It holds my Childhood——Although I’m still a kid.:D

  • Mike

    I reread books all the time. Most of them are just for pleasure and are books that I haven’t read in a while and I have forgotten a lot of what I read. I enjoy reading them the second or third time because I pick up on things that I missed before. The books that deal with learning a second language or something like that I reread because it helps refresh my memory and keeps things from falling through the cracks or I adjust what I am doing because I understand better what the writer was saying. This is also a good time to review because I find steps or procedures that the writer talked about when I first started to learn that I didn’t understand fully, but now I do because of some experience I had. Those books, I only reread parts of them and I am usually looking for certain things. Of course some of my books I reread because it is like visiting an old friend I haven’t seen in a long while.

  • Ivan

    Thank you a lot for rising up interesting questions, Scott.
    I was studying medicine for almost 3 years, (after some time i got depressed, quitted and changed to biology). Anyway, just wanted to point out that for me rereading was more like a routine thing, because i had to keep in mind such a huge mass of material, and there were quite a few of good books which would guide me well, so i think my studying process required this habit of rereading.
    I suppose that rereading not only helps to find something that was rather hidden or went unnoticed (as you mentioned above), also it helps make more solid implications or connection between objects, especially in such sciences which contain a lot of names (such as zoology and botanics for example). Anyway i think in such cases rereading requires some combination with a tactics of extracting those connections, such as for example creating mind maps. I noticed that it’s better to create a mind map based on the same material 1-2 times more then to just work with this or another already prepared mindmap by itself.
    As for literature books, i think everybody does have bunch of his favourites which are just bringing some kind of a sophisticated pleasure or are able to drive one’s mind away. I propose that maybe it’s not that much or not always so strongly connected with how useful this information is. Also, i can enjoy a book just because of how it’s written and nothing else.

  • Mu

    Interesting that you mentioned the Dao De Jing.
    This is the one book that I constantly reread.
    I always seem to find new truths in it.

    I wish I could reread a lot more. But there are so many books in my backlog that I don’t have this luxury.

  • missKhobo

    i thought i had my list of books to reread once a year( preferably in the first 3 months of the new year) but somehow i never get around to doing it. each year starts of on a different not. and before i know it i have not read any of the books.

    i do believe that there are books that need to be read once a year, to help you stay focused.

    Talent is Overrated is one such book

  • Peter

    Hi Scott,
    I usually enjoy re-read David Eddings fictional stories over and over again, why? Because I like how he weaves a good story and noticed each time over the years I could visualise the scenes better.

    Peter.

  • Sud

    Hey,
    When I think about this topic. Sometimes I feel what we read or reread along with the information will die with us, only what we spread along is preserved. The MAIN REASON we reread most of the books is we enjoy the things there. When I first read “The Count of Monte Cristo”, I was focusing on only love and revenge. Next time about the justification of the life of Dantes. The more I read the more I unearthed about the life’s perspective. Books are awesome which makes us leave the current place and enjoy a different world – not only in fiction, but also in maths, physics. So at the end, it was just pleasure to read.

  • Matt

    If I am honest with myself I know I that I don’t really have the time to re-read more than a few books a year, so I now try to take good quality summary notes as I read (be selective/read slow).

AS SEEN IN