I Re-Read My Favorite Book, and Couldn't Finish It

I have long declared Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale to be one of my favorite novels. I first read the novel the winter I graduated from college, when I was living in New York as a "grown-up" and not a student for the first time.

For as long as I can remember, I have been enamored with New York as a place. I loved my college years in Manhattan, but it wasn't until after school that I started to more fully appreciate the power and captivating beauty of a city so hard, so concrete, so fast. Winter's Tale took my new-found love of the city and reflected it back at me. Helprin's appreciation for the quirky nature of New York was palpable on every page, transporting me through the water tunnels beneath the city to the lakes upstate to the ceiling of Grand Central and back again.

But when I picked it up to re-read it this winter, with the chilly December air descending outside and perfectly grey skies overhead, I couldn't finish it. I've been stuck about 150 pages in since February, and it is breaking my heart.

Where is the book I cherished? Where is the story that gripped me so tightly from start to finish? Where are the characters I remember, the city I want to revisit, the adventures I want to relive?

I still appreciate Helprin's stunning way with words; it's hard to argue that he can't craft a mean sentence. And I am still in awe of his ability to recreate a city that feels at once very, very real and yet so far-fetched and impossible that we as readers know it cannot exist. But the book as a whole no longer grips me the way it did when I first read it.

Has the book changed, or have I?

Of course, this is a silly question. The book is the same; I'm even reading the same copy I read six years ago. So clearly I have changed. I have moved away from New York, no longer immersed in the city I once loved so dearly. I have grown as both a person and as a reader. I no longer demand the same things from my beloved novels as I once did. Six years ago, I had just discovered magical realism. I had spent the four years prior reading assigned texts with very little pleasure reading. I had not yet taken up blogging and reviewing, so felt more comfortable languishing in the pages of a novel for weeks on end. I had not yet begun reading more than one book at a time.*

In short, I am no longer the same reader I once was.

But I think it is more than that. I think, too, that part of the beauty I found in Winter's Tale lay in its ability to surprise. Helprin's variety of magical realism is subtle until of a sudden it is not; knowing what to expect and where I was going next took away just enough of that magic to leave me wallowing in the middle of the story, unable to finish.

Winter's Tale resonated with me so much on my first read that even my failed attempt to re-read it will not demote it from my list of favorite novels. This list, which exists in no physical form and changes on a daily basis, does not have to be a list of my favorite novels right now. Instead, it is the list of novels that spoke to me in such a way that they never really left me, changing me both as a person and as a reader. Winter's Tale is still that book to me, so while I'm sad to have lost something in my attempted re-read, I am still eternally grateful for my love of the book the first time around.

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Has this ever happened to anyone else? Have you re-read a book you once loved, only to find you no longer do? Why do you think your opinion changed?

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*The implications of reading as a blogger and reviewer, as a reader who reads multiple books at one time, and as a reader in the age of social media distraction are great enough to warrant an entirely separate post. Stay tuned.

21 comments

  1. It's an odd phenomenon, isn't it? A beloved book that feels much less spectacular the second time around.

    I mostly feel this way about books that I loved as a young reader (preteen, teen) when I revisit them as an adult. But even among the books that I've read, say, in the last 5-10 years I'm sure there are those that I loved then that I wouldn't love now.

    There's something to be said about the right book at the right time--something in them speaks to something in us.

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    1. On your last point, about finding the right books at the right time -- so much this! Which makes me wonder if I really didn't like the book when I tried to re-read it this winter, or if it just wasn't the right time. It's such a strange feeling though, to have loved it so much and now not even finish it.

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  2. I've definitely noticed how my preference for the work of specific authors has changed over time. There was a time when I had Chuck Palahniuk up on this mythological pedestal and couldn't wait for his new books to come out. But I've become so distant from his work lately that I even sold all but my few favorites to make room for other books a few weeks ago.

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    1. Interesting thought about an author's whole body of work. I'd thought of this as just the one book, but I wonder if I were to go back to re-read some of his others, how I would feel about them. Of course, now I'm a little bit scared to do so because I don't want to not like them either.

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    1. I know! You didn't like this one, right?

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  4. Very interesting! I haven't run into this YET. I have reread a number of books that I first loved as a young lass but so far all I've found is that I have a different understanding of them. I love to come at something from a completely different time in my life.

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    1. I'd never had an experience quite like this before, though I've definitely had some with a new/different understanding upon re-read. Even the Harry Potter books read differently as an adult(ish) than when I first read them in middle/high school.

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  5. This is precisely why I do not re-read. For me my experience with a novel is very much tied to the time in my life when I read it... You lose that wonderful sense of discovery that second time round. Same reason I rarely watch movies made of books I have loved....

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    1. Joanne, I can definitely understand where you are coming from. I've never been a big re-reader, choosing instead only to revisit a few key favorites over the years, but this has me concerned about trying any of my other favorites.

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  6. I've run into this occasionally, though not as strongly as you seem to have. On the other hand, I've run into the reverse: a book I didn't care much for or didn't finish has later become one of my very favorites.

    We do change over time. Experience, both in life and as a reader, is bound to affect our interaction with and reaction to a book. Current situation also makes a difference. It may be that at some time in the future, you will pick up Winter's Tale again and fall in love with it a second time. Or not. But at least, as you say, you have the memory of that first enchantment to hold on to.

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    1. Yes, the reverse is always such a joy! I've had a few of those. I've also had some I've re-read in hopes I'd like them more the second time, or as an older reader, but found I still did not like on re-reading.

      I can only hope that you are right and someday I can come back to Winter's Tale and enjoy it as much as I did the first time. Or at least be able to finish it...

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  7. I have mixed feelings about re-reading. We can change dramatically and once I've experienced a book, I can never really re-experience it exactly the same way. Sorry this one didn't work out for you this time around, but you'll always have the memories of that first reading to enjoy.

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    1. I'm with you, Andi, and that's why I don't often try to re-read books. But I was hoping to revisit some of my big favorites this year, and now I'm kind of scared to keep on that track!

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  8. Oh no, Kerry! It's sad to read this but I know it happens. I last read Winter's Tale after 9/11 and it still held me but we are all so wounded then and magical realism was all I could stand.

    As far a book I read and revisited there is one and I am upset I can't remember the name but it was about a woman wronged by a man. Fiction set in the late 1800s. The first time I read it, I strongly identified w/ the woman and thought it amazingly insightful. Ten years later, I thought she was a loon. I felt a bit of sympathy but my emotions were completely reversed. I was shocked.

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    1. It's such a lovely book (or at least, I thought it was?) and now I'm not even sure how to feel about it! Even though I know we as readers change while the book stays the same, it's still jarring to re-experience a book so differently from the first (or first, second, third, etc.) read of it.

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  9. this is such a great post. And I'm always afraid of this when I go back to read a book I really loved. Really loved and professed my love to many times to many people. But I'm glad you decided not to remove this from your list of favorite books. Like you said, it may not be the book for you now but you'll always remember the book it once was for you

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    1. Thanks! I definitely struggled with this, in part because I loved it so much and part because I really have recommended it to SO MANY PEOPLE. But I still loved it the first time through, so I'm not willing to give it up entirely. Perhaps a re-read in another few years will change my mind all over again!

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  10. This has happened to me and it's so hard! I know I've changed drastically as a reader over the years, but I always assume I'll still love certain books the same way. I will say that I've had the opposite happen as well. There are books I have re-read and love even more now.

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