Does Anyone Re-read Old Books?

Reading & Writing


Regular readers will have noticed a dearth of London articles here of late. This is not due to any antipathy I have for my city; for the past eight months we’ve been living out of suitcases, waiting to move home to our renovated flat, and all my reference books were in storage.

Now that I’m home and have started unpacking the London volumes, I’m horrified to discover that what I thought was a minimalist life is nothing of the kind. Yes, I’ve always owned too many T-shirts and probably have too many tea mugs but I do books the way Kim Kardashian does selfies. My bookcases have to be reinforced to take the weight. Again, rather like Kim Kardashian.

Clearly it’s time for a cull. I’m thinking; keep the classics on an e-reader, treat it like a hard drive and ditch the ephemeral thrillers. But often it’s the ephemera one needs most. We readers fantasise that we’ll one day return to our favourite novels, but how often do we really? My rule, therefore, will be to ditch all the books I’ll never come back to and save the rest.

In Brian Moore’s charming fantasy ‘The Great Victorian Collection’ a young history professor dreams of an open-air market filled with a dazzling collection of priceless Victoriana, only to awake and find it standing outside his window. But the effort of looking after so many things he prizes becomes an albatross around his neck. For surely your possessions will always come to possess you…

So, away with quite a few volumes I’ve never finished, including Tristram Shandy and Moby Dick, but then the dilemma starts. There are too many books I really ought to read (Don Quixote sits there staring at me) and too many guilty pleasures I can’t surrender (Bill Tidy’s Fosdyke Saga, I’m looking at you).

Tower of books

The return to old favourites is a shock that’s not always pleasant. Many of my former favourite reads now seem duller and slower than I remember, while other cutting edge novels feel like period pieces. JG Ballard’s work somehow manages to be redolent of the sixties and seventies while also being weirdly futuristic, but some other volumes have taken a hit in the new century. I’m interested to note that comic novels have in many cases worn better than thrillers, although I haven’t found any great ones in the last few years (recommendations, please!).

In an effort to encourage rereading (or first-time discovery), I have ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ coming out in late summer from Quercus Books. I’ve been working on this for many years, but the finished work will be very different from my old Independent On Sunday column, featuring the lives and writings of 99 authors interspersed with essays about those who helped (and in some cases hindered) their novels.

NB The stack of books above is currently on the first floor of Heal’s on Tottenham Court Road.


22 comments on “Does Anyone Re-read Old Books?”

  1. Chris Lancaster says:

    Every word of this sounds terribly familiar. In a bid to bring our book problem under control, I’ve implemented a new rule whereby I only buy hard copies of books by eight of my favourite authors (one of which is yourself), and the rest I’ll buy on Kindle. It needs a whole new way of thinking; previously every time I went into a bookshop I would come out with a bag of goodies. Now I come out with a list of what to pick up in e-format.

    This isn’t fair on the poor old bookshop, but I have to draw the line somewhere. When relocating my study recently from a downstairs room to an upstairs room, I boxed up lots of books to store in our garage. This was rather a startling exercise. I mean, do I really need three large storage boxes full of Sherlock Holmes pastiches? Or five large storage boxes marked “sundry sci-fi (unread)?

  2. Brian Evans says:

    Some years ago my partner and I had a painful clearance of some of our books. Two weeks later he won the weekly competition in “The New Statesman” – £750 pounds worth of Oxford University classics.

  3. chazza says:

    I am rapidly disappearing under a maelstrom of books. New purchases appear weekly but whenever I have a clear out, I become obsessed with re-reading the books I’ve disposed of so I have to re-purchase – mostly at a higher price…A sort of Moebius strip of books…

  4. Roger says:

    I will probably die like Charles-Valentin Alkan.
    I sometimes find myself thinking “Way to go!”

  5. Jackie Hayles says:

    Collecting anything can lead to a sort of blindness, not really noticing what you have and sometimes buying the same thing twice. I recently visited the John Soane Museum and found it claustrophobic – that man was truly obsessive. I have donated a lot of my old books to charity shops and now I only buy e-versions of everything except books with a highly visual format. I realised it was time to buy an e-reader when I dropped a huge doorstep of a book, The Collected Works of J.G Ballard, on my head whilst trying to read it in bed. I agree that some books seem dated (never Ballard) but I am always surprised at how small the print is and how yellow the pages have become. Even if I kept the books, I would never be able to read them now.

  6. Roger says:

    ” I dropped …The Collected Works of J.G Ballard, on my head whilst trying to read it in bed”
    How did you manage to do that?

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    I know I have too many books, there is always an excuse to not get rid of a book, especially reference books. With the internet these are even less use but can off load them, I fear not.


  8. Vincent C says:

    Congratulations on the forthcoming Book of Forgotten Authors. I look forward to buying a copy.

    Separately, some years ago my in laws retired to a house in the country in upstate New York. The reason they chose the particular house was that it came with a large barn, which they promptly filled with shelving and then their books. Their solution is starting to look extremely attractive.

  9. Andrea yang says:

    I have given up on rereading anything. I buy nearly everything in e-format. As a librarian I get too many book dumps after someone moves or passes away.Few items are useable as they have been stored poorly. No one wants to toss books so share them while they are still in good shape!

  10. Vivienne says:

    Mobs Dick, Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote are still to be tackled by me, so can’t chuck them yet. Am cataloging, interrupted by computer breakdown but, once done think I can start to discard the read ones at least. But yesterday I bought Mayhew’s London Crooks, so am as hopeless as ver.

  11. John Howard says:

    A bit like you I have, in my loft, boxes of books that have will need a cull sometime soon. They started accumulating 40 years ago and although through a few moves around the country have kept the number down and although I have tried the same sort of regime as Chris I still find myself browsing. How can you not browse? So, inevitably, a browse in Foyles in Westfield last year resulted in me coming out with a double memoir of Brian Sewell as well as something else I knew I simply must have. A similar visit to a Waterstones in Glasgow resulted in me coming out at the very last moment with a door stop of a book of bitchy diary entries down the ages. Who knew that so many diarists liked to bitch about so many people. Fabulous read though. Great to dip into.
    There is another move on the horizon so this time a proper cull will need to be held. I wonder if I will manage to get above 20% if I use the criteria of “I got this because I thought I would read it and it hasn’t happened yet” ?

  12. Helen Martin says:

    We’ve been in this house for +45 years and every attempt to get rid of books has resulted in yet more for some reason. I read books over and over again, some books. I read Admin’s again and again and a couple of other authors as well as ones I haven’t read for a long time when they emerge from a fallen pile.

  13. Lynchie says:

    I buy more books than are good for me, and – over the years – have saved far too many which I plan to re-read. Then there are a fair number of “the classics” which I know I should have read. A couple of months back, I was lucky enough to have a nice man from Oxfam come to my flat to collect a couple of hundred of my books which, I’d finally admitted to myself, were never to be read again. I plan to perform a similar clear out in the Spring.

  14. Jo W says:

    Who re-reads old books? I do. ( Sitting quietly at the back,with her hand up and her head in a book.)

  15. Ken Mann says:

    I reread old favourites every few years. I’d vouch for the quality of some (Clifford Simak) while acknowledging that some are mainly nostalgia reads (E.E. “Doc” Smith). Incidentally the e-book editions of Smith are some of the worst examples of OCR I have come across. Mind you “tractor beans” for “tractor beams” gives old SF a certain surreal charm.

  16. John Howard says:

    The old books are definitely there to be read again Jo. ( And again )

  17. Stephen says:

    Hi Chris,I intend to reread the Bryant and May series in order once you’ve finished it.I have reread some of them through.


    Of course I reread my old books. A well-loved book cannot be depleted in one reading. Besides, every time I return to a different person and the book seems new.

  19. Peter Lee says:

    My mother-in-law is currently re-reading the Bryant & May series, and my wife & I plan to do the same before long. Earlier this year I was struggling to find something to read – nothing new was really appealing to me – so I re-read some old favourites. Several really hadn’t aged well and I wondered what I’d ever liked about them in the first place, but others proved themselves to be just as good as I’d remembered. I really do need to have a cull though – three bookcases, completely full and double-layered for the most part is a bit much.

  20. Mike Pitcher says:

    I am that sad a bookworm that now I am aging I worry what will happen to my collection after I go to the great library in the sky, I often re-read books, its like looking in on an old friend, comforting like a brandy, a log fire and a comfy armchair on a cold winters day

  21. Karl says:

    I can only urge you to give Moby Dick another go (though it’s not one to hang on to once read): the key is to approach it knowing that the experience of reading the book recreates the experience of a whaling voyage. The vast majority of it’s terribly boring, spent finding out about the day-to-day mundanities of life at sea, then there are occasional flurries of action. But it’s supposed to be boring, and to drag, because whaling was like that. On that basis, it’s remarkable and there aren’t many other books that manage to recreate what they’re describing, like that. House of Leaves is the only one that springs to mind.

  22. admin says:

    OK, I’ll try again with Dopey Mick, but not House of Leaves, which just made me hope that its author would die in a explosion.

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