If you had to choose, would you prefer a book that’s unputdownable or one that’s re-readable?
That’s what I was asking myself yesterday. I’ve been working through a TBR list of new-to-me authors who write in sub-genres similar to mine—historical fantasy, low fantasy, fairy tale re-tellings, what Michaeline memorably described as cozy high fantasy. They’ve all had something interesting to offer: an engaging premise, charismatic heroine, fascinating world, compelling conflict, lovely word-smithery—but none of them put the whole package together in a way that had me transported, desperate to read more and sold on the next in the series.
After a dozen damp squibs I started to wonder if the problem was me, so I took a break and paged through my Kindle to refresh my palate with a guaranteed good read or two. I have a new-ish Kindle with all my purchases on it, but I also have a really old device where most of my library is consigned to the archive. It’s my Keeper Kindle. The only live titles are books which have really grabbed me (unputdownable) and those which I re-read again and again (re-readable).
As I scanned my options, I realized I need to narrow the selection even further. There are some excellent, compelling, well-written stories that I return to again and again. Others that I was glued to first time around, but somehow when I’m looking for a special read I always choose something else.
Take historical romance author Loretta Chase. She’s an excellent writer and a brilliant storyteller. I love Lord of Scoundrels, The Last Hellion, and her Carsington books. I particularly enjoy and often re-visit Miss Wonderful, thanks to its Derbyshire setting and Industrial Revolution-inspired plot. It’s clever, funny and energetically upbeat, so I root for the characters as they battle to overcome a seemingly insurmountable conflict. The book doesn’t just have a happy ending, it makes me feel happy as I read it. Contrast that with Silk is for Seduction, the first Dressmaker book. It’s powerful and emotional. It has a brilliant dark moment and one of the best sex scenes I’ve ever read. The problem is that for most of the book it’s impossible to see how the characters can find a happy ending together, even though it’s equally apparent that they’ll never be happy with anyone else. Even though Love Conquers all in the end, reading the book is an emotionally stressful experience. I bet loads of readers love being put through the emotional wringer, knowing it will all be OK in the end. Not me. On first read I found the book utterly unputdownable. I don’t want to read it again.
In the end my choices were Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor followed by T Kingfisher’s Paladin’s Grace. I had a fabulous time. I’ve read both books multiple times but familiarity only enhanced my enjoyment—several hours of warm and uplifting feelgood, like catching up with old friends. I don’t think I’d describe either book as unputdownable, because even on first reading I took my time and savored every page.
The other question I asked myself was whether I’d like my own books to be unputdownable or re-readable. Obviously I’d love them to be both, but if I had to choose, I’d want to be re-readable. Unputdownable stories might bring bestseller status and greater financial rewards, but to stay with a reader over the years and bring them recurring pleasure would be my definition of success.
How about you? Do you have a preference, as a reader or a writer?
For me, they are the same thing: unputdownable or re-readable. Sometimes, though, it takes me a while to get back to it if it’s heavy. I know you don’t like Dream a Little Dream by SEP, but I love it. The first time I read it, it was heavy and it took me years to go back and read it again, but now I love it. I’m re-reading Nora Roberts’ Chesapeake Bay series even though I hate the ending of book 4, but I really like the character and relationship arcs (always what I read for). I did just by Silk for Seduction. I’ll let you know where it falls for me.
It’s interesting to me that the two things are the same for you–the qualities that make a book re-readable are the same ones that make it unputdownable. That’s not true for me, and it sounds as though not for Jeanne or Elizabeth–we can find a book compelling for a single read, but then once the plot is resolved we’re done.
I’ll be really interested to hear what you make of Silk is for Seduction.
For a long time (I’d say twenty years or so) I found many of SEP’s books both re-readable and unputdownable. I have some of them almost off by heart. I really liked her larger than life characters and storylines. You’re right, though, Dream a Little Dream wasn’t a favorite of mine–it’s quite dark, with two very damaged people finding solace and eventually happiness courtesy of an emotionally traumatised plot moppet.
Somehow over the last few years my tastes have changed and I don’t read many contemporary stories any more. I still like character, community and romance, but with more action, higher stakes and preferably in worlds more weird and wonderful than our own bizarre reality.
Your post made me stop and think about what constitutes “re-readable” vs. “Unputdownable” for me. If I were to construct a Venn diagram of the books that fall into those two categories, I’m not sure how much overlap there would be.
A lot of what makes a book “unputdownable” for me is that I can’t see what’s coming next/how it’s going to end. Once I’ve read it, obviously, that quality is gone.
Re-readable, on the other hand, has more to do with characters I fall in love with and want to re-visit.
Once in a very great while, an author manages to concoct a story that ticks both boxes, but not often.
I think you’re right–there is definitely be an area of overlap in my re-readable/unputdownable Venn diagram, but it’s a rare book that fits both sets. I can’t think of any titles right now, but sometimes I’ll read a book fast because I need to know what happens, and then I’ll immediately go back and read it again to savor the story.
One series that finally settled into the overlap box for me was Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. I enjoyed the first couple of books, but it didn’t really hook me until the series blossomed into a romance as well as a historical/political adventure story. I haven’t re-read it for ages, because every time I start I find myself binge-reading the whole series. It runs to six long novels and I’d need to set aside at least a week to do it justice.
I’m firmly in the re-readable camp.
I’ve read a number of books (though can’t think of a single one to use as an example) that I’ve stayed up half-the night to finish reading because I just couldn’t put them down, but whether those stories are ever re-read again depends. If I can’t put a book down because I’m enjoying “being” with the characters, the plot line is interesting, and the ending is satisfying, then I’m likely to read that book again and again. If, on the other hand, I’m unable to put down the book because I’m worried about the characters or upset by what’s happening and just want to make sure everything is okay in the end, then that book is likely to go into the “donate to the library” pile.
It’s a fine line.
I like to be engaged, but I don’t want to be unduly worried or anxious while I’m reading. For me, books are like getting together with a group of friends. I like to hear the fun, entertaining anecdotes they tell and am happy to listen to repeats of the olld favorites, but I only need to hear the “something horrible that happened that turned out well in the end” anecdotes once.
Jilly, I too have some of the same feelings about Loretta Chase’s series though for the Carsington series Mr. Impossible is my catnip. With adventure, romance, and a vicarious trip to Egypt, it’s definitely a re-readable favorite.
Everything you said. I love to re-read–it feels just like catching up with old friends. I like character and community, and enough conflict to power the story, but not in a way that fills me with dread or causes me distress. And I think that’s emotional distress. Hence my Loretta Chase Dressmaker romance issues 🙂 I suppose it’s that narrative transportation thing of stepping into the heroine’s shoes and living the story. I’m happy for the characters to be in danger, fighting to save the world (lots of that in fantasy and urban fantasy) as long as they’re not suffering psychological trauma. No stalker-y thrillers for me, thanks, I’d have nightmares!
Mr Impossible is a huge favorite of mine, too. I love the main characters–Loretta Chase twists the standard romance tropes so deftly, without ever theme-mongering. Plus a pacy adventure plot and some lovely Egyptian descriptions. It’s such a clever, funny, interesting book.
I tend not to reread books any more; the only go-to’s I still have are anything by Jenny Crusie and anything by Jane Austen. And while I’ve reread all the Austens maybe dozens of times (I have multiple copies just in case one falls apart mid-read), I haven’t reread them now in a few years. I’m keeping them handy, though, just in case! In the past, I’ve reread some of the Golden Age mystery authors—Josephine Tey, Edmund Crispin, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham—although I’ve given all my copies away now except for an anthology of Josephine Tey. So…not sure which camp I’d prefer my readers fell into. Mainly if anybody reads a book of mine once and really enjoys it, I’m thrilled to pieces.
I’m with Elizabeth, entrenched in the re-readable camp, but I have friends who regard re-reading as wasteful, given that the most voracious reader can only devour so many titles in a lifetime. They love the thrill of discovering new stories and authors. When I read a new book or author, deep down I’m hoping it will be an addition to the re-readership collection.
I love your philosophy regarding your own readers. So true 🙂
I am in that group Jilly Wood describes who love the thrill of discovering new stories and authors. I crave the compulsively readable book, a book that sweeps me into a story that’s physically painful to abandon for any reason; I have never reread a book in my life, and feel this trait is so deeply embedded within me, it is as though it were part of my DNA. I view those who reread books, often multiple times, as like beautiful butterflies I’ve never seen before, marvel at, and can only assume are visiting from an unknown alien world. I have many friends who absolutely love to revisit their previous reads, but for reasons, unfathomable to me, I can never share their special joy.
That’s so interesting. I have the discovery craving in other areas of my life, especially travel. Some people like to holiday in a favorite place year after year, but there are so many countries on my bucket list that I’d always choose to explore somewhere new. (And now that we’re not allowed to go anywhere, I’m glad I’ve been lucky enough to visit so many already).
You must be a great resource for your bookish butterfly friends. Do you spread the word if you find an outstanding story? Do they ask you for recommendations? And (since it would be wrong to waste an opportunity)–did you read anything good lately? We’d love to know!