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  • The Secret to Finding New Great Books: Read the Old Ones Again

The Secret to Finding New Great Books: Read the Old Ones Again

Join a journey from Clancy and Grisham popular fiction to sci-fi classics, revisiting Rothfuss, Ender's Game, and finding new insights in old favorites.

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Several popular book covers as a wall poster

My favourite books turned into a wall poster because bookshelves aren’t a thing any more - photo by author

I used to read a lot of popular fiction by authors like Tom Clancy, Ken Follett and John Grisham. There’s nothing like 1000 pages on how to build a cathedral to pass the time while hiding from creditors after a business failure (a story for another day).

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that none of those books stuck with me, regardless of how great they were at helping me kill time. I’ve been on a fantasy and science fiction kick the past decade, based on the theory that even if it’s forgettable, I’ll still be introduced to new worlds and new ideas. I also listen to a lot of non-fiction audiobooks and podcasts.

A few months ago I was going through a bad stretch of books — there being just as many bad writers in sci-fi as any other genre. My favourite authors like Brandon Sanderson and Andy Weir were between series or between novels, and I wanted something new.

Frustrated with my recent choices, I decided to re-read a book series I loved, the Kingkiller Chronicles from Patrick Rothfuss. The final book in the series hasn’t been written, and perhaps never will be, but I remember enjoying the first two books when I read them 15 years ago, and there was a rumour the final book might be ready later this year.

Two sentences into the first book I was hooked and had a magical few weeks of reading on my Kindle before going to sleep each night. Much to my surprise, I remembered only the broad swath of the plot and the memorable final paragraph, and the rest was like reading it for the first time.

When I was a kid, I read a LOT. I would often find myself without a new book to read, but there were a lot of them lying around the house so I would pick them up and read them again. Before downloadable content came along, I re-read many of my books two or three times. By the time I was 30, I had read my favourite novel, Ender’s Game, six times.

I read almost exclusively digital books these days, either audiobooks from Audiobooks.com or ebooks for my Kindle. It has become so easy to buy new books that I’ve gotten into the habit of doing a quick search on Amazon for a new read every time I finish a book.

It’s actually easier to buy something new than to scan my library and read something old for the second or third time. Amazon of course does this on purpose — their stock price doesn’t go up when you read something you already paid for.

But here’s the thing. A great book is MUCH better than a good book.

I’ve now recently re-read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I learned massive lessons from both books when I read them originally, so they weren’t quite as surprising on re-read as Rothfuss’ books, but I was completely engrossed in them and did come out with some new insights.

Heraclitus said that no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. The same is true for a timeless book that has depth and beauty. You’ll have changed by the time you read it again, and so will the world and the book’s place in the world. Your own growth will fuel new discoveries in old content.

Reading the latest thriller from Blake Crouch or James Patterson is a fun way to pass the time, but that book is completely gone from my head a week later. Re-reading an old favourite is just as engaging, but a lot more meaningful.

Imagine if every time you wanted to have a conversation, you had to make a new friend. It’s so much easier and more fulfilling to deepen the relationships you already have. I guarantee you, your most-loved books have more depth to them, just like your most-loved people do.

I’ve decided now that I’m going to make half of my reads repeats, and half will be new material. If I’m lucky, my preferred authors will come out with new pages often enough to keep me fully occupied, although I just quit part way through a crappy 13th book in a mostly-good series about a cranky beer can saving humanity from galactic war. I need better sequels too — are you listening George Martin? Don’t pretend that series is finished, get back to work!

So don’t fall prey to the e-commerce-fueled ease of acquiring new content, and instead spend some quality time with old flames. Take a browse through your reading history, especially of books from decades ago. Those books are relationships you’ve already made, friends you already know and love. And your friends miss you.

Drop by for a visit. They’ll be amazed at how much you’ve grown.

  1. My best read of the past couple of years, Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir. I look forward to re-reading it in a decade or so.

  2. My most treasured non-fiction book ever, Siddartha, by Herman Hesse. Beware of following gurus!

Thanks for reading!

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