In his often anthologized essay “On Reading Old Books,” William Hazlitt wrote, “I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire to ever read at all.” This is a rather extreme position on rereading, but he is not alone. Larry McMurtry made a similar point: “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security. How nice to be able to return to what won’t change. When I sit down at dinner with a given book, I want to know what I’m going to find.” In her recent study On Rereading Patricia Meyers Spacks uses McMurtry as an example of someone who rereads to stubbornly avoid novelty, and unapologetically so. His refusal, like Hazlitt’s, to read anything new makes rereading a conservative if comfortable experience, vehemently opposed to the possible shock of the new.
Spacks herself feels slightly differently. She writes, “No reader can fail to agree that the number of books she needs to read far exceeds her capacities, but when the passion for rereading kicks in, the faint guilt that therefore attends the indulgence only serves to intensify its sweetness.” In Spacks’s scenario rereading is a forbidden pleasure, tantalizing and, contra Hazlitt and McMurtry, with an element of time wasted — an extravagance. The choice Hazlitt and McMurtry easily make weighs more heavily on Spacks, who knows she forgoes a new book every time she picks up an old one.
Yet there are far more positive spins put on rereading in Spacks’s book and elsewhere. Pleasure, after all, needn’t be a negative. Elsewhere in his essay, Hazlitt brings up a point which is raised often by rereaders: “In reading a book which is an old favorite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links on the chains of personal identity. They are landmarks and guides in our journey through life.” This double perspective is often mentioned as one of the pleasures of rereading, especially of reading books from childhood. Hazlitt writes rhapsodically of opening Tom Jones and feeling like a child again, and Spacks, too, makes a tour of her childhood reading to see what holds up to adult scrutiny. She finds Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland still enchants, but the Narnia series feels flat and lifeless. Ferdinand the Bull delights, as does The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the adventure of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped enthralls her. Thus rereading is a way back into the past, to a time when one was more innocent or more susceptible to the powers of imagination or just younger, and different. It inspires introspection and self-reflection through the workings of memory: How am I the same person as the last time I read this book? How am I different?
Rereading is also a form of pedagogy. To know a book you have to reread it, as Harold Bloom writes in his How to Read and Why (though he is apt to plea, as he does here, for careful reading rather than repetition; it is taken for granted that only through multiple readings will knowledge will seep in). “We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading is the search for a difficult pleasure.” Though rereading we get to know a book beyond its surface elements, we read more deeply and are rewarded not with an easy experience but with a richer one. We learn to take a book apart, pick out crucial scenes, ponder characters’ motives, see its flaws, tease out its themes. In part, through rereading we become skilled critics. Spacks too explores the professional aspect of her rereading: as a teacher and literary critic, she has read certain books over and over as part of her job and been surprised when they surprise her, or when students find aspects of a book she has passed over in her multiple readings. Even the pros sometimes miss a detail in Moby-Dick, or the book Bloom confesses to reading twice a year, Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers.
To really love a book we must spend time with it, and that means rereading — for love, too, falls under the heading of Bloom’s “difficult pleasure.” Anne Fadiman’s collection of essays culled from the “Rereadings” column she edited in The American Scholar explores the strong feelings that arise between rereader and book. In her introduction to the collection, Fadiman claims that “each [column] was a miniature memoir at whose heart lay that most galvanic of topics, the evolving nature of love.” Some of the most memorable essays in Rereadings involve letting go of love, or becoming disillusioned by rereading. For example, Luc Sante’s essay on Enid Starkie’s biography of Arthur Rimbaud describes a vehement case of hero-worship in which the idolatrous fever eventually breaks. You see, Sante confides, “At some point before adolescence, I had decided to be a child prodigy,” and he chose writing as his field. At 13 he encountered Rimbaud in a poetry anthology, and soon after he found the aforementioned biography “with a picture of a big-haired, pensive, beautiful adolescent” on the cover. He read it everywhere he went, and realized he had chosen a remarkable idol: “He was hipper than anyone alive.” Sante was smitten.
Yet there were attendant issues with such a role model: “He wasn’t even divisible into parts, you couldn’t be half a Rimbaud. The alternative to being Rimbaud was to be nothing.” Inevitably, Sante grew out of his passion. “I can reread the Starkie biography today…and no longer feel as though I will have to set the book down at some point and go put on music or think about something else, because the race is over now.” Rimbaud has won; he won by never having a Rimbaud to worship. But then, he also never had the adulthood Sante has, or the knowledge that has come with it. Rimbaud lost too by never growing up, by his truncated biography, by always coming to a tragic early end.
Vivian Gornick’s essay in Fadiman’s collection also deals with lost love. “When I was in my twenties, my friends and I read Colette as others read the Bible.” Colette is the only writer who can describe their condition, the way they had to live. “The condition, of course, was that we were women, and that Love (as we had long known) was the territory upon which our battle with Life was to be pitched.” Like Sante worshipping Rimbaud, Gornick and her friends’ fixation on Colette had its problems. They were intellectual girls (young women, really), readers, of course, who lived out their fantasies in books. Gornick writes of their identification with the great literary heroines, Henry James’s Isabel Archer and George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, “passionate young women destined for tragedy at the hands of famously unworthy men.” Yet they were also new women, championing Mary McCarthy and relishing their sexual independence. Colette combined these two forces, or so it seemed. “She seemed to know everything that actually went on inside a woman ‘in the grip.’ Her wisdom riveted your eyes to the page, gathered up your scattered, racing inattention. It made A Woman in Love as serious a concern for the novelist as God or War.” Gornick’s descriptions of communing with Colette’s books, particularly The Vagabond and The Shackle, are hungry and spiritual. How would they stand up to rereading?
Not well, is the short answer. After 30 years they seem melodramatic, contrived, alienating. Though she says Colette’s “writing is incomparable,” Gornick exclaims of the lovers, “But what appalling strangers these people are to one another! Not a speck of reality between them. How preoccupied [Colette] is with aging. Why hadn’t I noticed that before? And the aimlessness of them all, women and men alike — especially in The Shackle. No one has anything to do but lie around brooding about love.” Note that love has lost its capital letter for Gornick. These novels about passion felt dispassionate. Where in her 20s Gornick had believed love was the territory she would stake her claim on, life has intervened and shown her their lives are much larger. Gornick is struck by how much smaller Colette’s world seems, and though the comparison is with her first reading, it is also with her own world. Gornick’s final thought is a melancholy one: “I want the reading of Colette to be the same as it once was, but it is not. Yet I am wrenched by the beauty of that which no longer feels large, and can never feel large again.” Rereading has taken something away from Gornick that she valued, an illusion about love, and life, that cannot be retrieved.
Rereading does not have to lead to loss, however. Plenty of people reread because they find it soothing, fortifying even. And a disproportionate number of those rereaders seem to pick up a novel by Jane Austen. When Patricia Spacks started researching rereading as a topic, it was Jane Austen who was most often the answer to the question of who people reread (especially women, it seems, men, according to nothing more than anecdotal evidence, keep a volume of Tolkien nearby). She asked a young woman in China why Austen was her favorite author, and then a group of Holocaust survivors who met to read Austen aloud to one another. From their answers, Spacks concluded that Austen meant civilization. “We may plausibly surmise that a considerable proportion of Austen’s many rereaders, from adoring members of the Jane Austen Society to casual pleasure-seekers, find comfort in civilized discourse: carefully formed plots that end predictably in satisfactory marriages, style that reflects the author’s dominion over her material, characters rewarded and punished according to their deserts.” The fact that her world is one that values words — think of the verbal sparring between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice — also gives the rereader an extra jolt. Spacks writes, “It’s not just that Austen teaches us about life — life teaches us about Austen.”
Allegra Goodman’s essay in Anne Fadiman’s collection, “Pemberly Previsited,” traces the motions of one Austen rereader, from a girl too young to understand much of Austen’s subtlety to a young mother whose own mother has just died and is looking for solace in Austen’s world. It is her third reading of Pride and Prejudice, a tribute to her mother who loved Austen, that really makes the novel click into place for her. “What I found irresistible this time was the way Austen combines astute social satire with fairy tale. The combination didn’t seem awkward to me, but inspired. The satire is exquisite, while the fairy tale is viscerally satisfying.” While after her second reading Goodman had found the book lacking compared with more complex or darker classic novels, this time it seems just right. As Goodman wryly notes, “A dark imagination is, perhaps, more appealing before you know anything about darkness.” In a time of darkness, Austen has provided a fairy tale, but one with enough grounding in reality to viscerally satisfy her. It is hard to ask more of a book.
Goodman keeps rereading Pride, finding more and more to admire in it, and coming to this conclusion about the process: “I think unfolding is what rereading is about. Like pleated fabric, the text reveals different parts of its pattern at different times. And yet every time the text unfolds, in the library, or in bed, or upon the grass, the reader adds new wrinkles. Memory and experience press themselves into each reading so that each encounter informs the next.” This image echoes one Spacks uses, that of the palimpsest (an ancient scroll where a text is scraped off and another written over it), where each reading is layered upon the last. “Although one never altogether recovers previous layers,” Spacks writes, “they add texture and meaning to the ultimate version.”
As long as we keep rereading, however, we never have the ultimate version of a book. Whether we go back again and again to a classic (and the ability to hold up to rereading is how a book becomes a classic) or pick up an old favorite to see how it has fared or dig deep into the treasures of our youth, rereading is an experiment that is bound to change us, and to change our impressions of the books we read. Rereading can certainly surprise, it can instruct, and it can make us feel safe. Maybe it is not indulgent to reread a book, but a way to learn; and what is any sort of reading but a way to learn, whether it is something new about the world or just something new about ourselves?