The Paper Mirror

Mars Landers on Map

The reader with a favorite book, read until the pages are falling apart, is a cliche of used bookstores and coffeeshops everywhere. Despite Kindles and free wifi at Starbucks, this archetype still exists in those of us who love even one book.

Why do people re-read books? In particular, why do any of us re-read fiction, ever? We’ve already read the damn thing, and we know the ending. But the question itself presupposes that a novel is just a story. That events mean only what they mean.

A story may seem like it’s describing a complete world, but writers have to cherry-pick details and events to carefully sketch out their story. Our imaginations do the rest. Ever read a story that describes too much, nailing down every damn detail? The very best books sketch out the story, leaving room. Room for other shades of meaning to creep in, meaning that we provide. Readers can be condescending, pompous beings, and we love seeing bits of ourselves in our stories. When we can bring something of themselves to the tale, we fall in love with it.

Our memories aren’t as clear and as sharp as we’d like, and I think people also re-read books because of time and change. While the book hasn’t changed, you have. We forget what we felt when you first read the book, so we bring something different to fill in the empty spaces of description and emotion.

Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is a masterpiece of satiric, yet gentle poetic language. A themed collection of short stories, it tells of the human race’s imperialistic colonization of the rust-colored world. The tragedy of the nearly-extinct Martians and the complacent, entitled human race is one that pulls me in every time I read through the three editions I’ve owned. I saw my younger self in the hermit-like Martians, just as I now see myself, thirty years older, in the human family who become the last Martian colonists.

The book doesn’t have any particularly memorable characters, but it does have situations that are unforgettable. The planet Mars is the book’s protagonist. As the human colonies grow, displace the natives, and finally fall, what happens on its surface happens to the red planet more than it does to Bradbury’s gruffly drawn characters.

But some books have a single lead character who is very specific yet somehow relatable. In The Forever War, Joe Haldeman’s magnum opus, William Mandella skips across centuries of war due to relativistic time dilation. He finds human society less welcoming with every mission.

Alienation can be very relatable, as we all experience it in our lives at some point. William Mandella joins a select club along with Holden Caulfield, Kingore Trout, Owen Meany–who all resonated with us, or a part of us.

In The Forever War, there’s a sort of interlude where Mandella is laid up in the hospital, and his relief at sitting out the war for a while echoed my own when I was in the hospital for a week after an auto accident. Escaping bills and work for a week made being in the hospital for a life-threatening condition, unwashed and bored and in pain, seem not quite as bad as it could have been.

I am neither an astronaut, a Martian, or a soldier; but we readers are a versatile, desperate bunch. We love words, and we want very much to relate to the places and people that are drawn by them. A book merely has to let us do that for us to love it.


Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He’s also a musician who plays in a Celtic fusion band and other acts.

Photo by Kenneth Lu, via Flickr

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