Essays

The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading

By posted at 6:00 am on November 11, 2011 30

coverIn 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.

coverTo 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?

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30 Responses to “The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading”

  1. Shelley
    at 11:22 am on November 11, 2011

    Yes to all this, and an additional pleasure of rereading childhood books is to see how they (magically?) prefigure and confirm destiny or character. For instance, Ferdinand the Bull shines like a Zodiac sign over the heads of all those who wanted to fit in but just couldn’t.

  2. JJL
    at 12:21 pm on November 11, 2011

    Excellent essay! I am typically a slow reader, so like Ms. Spacks, re-reading a book always seemed like a waste of time that could be better spent reading a new book. However, my husband and I decided to re-read books periodically that one or the other of us had been forced to read in school. I am very, very happy we did. So far we’ve re-read The Great Gatsby (a 7th Grade literature requirement), The Good Earth and The Prince (both high school freshman history requirements), and Catch-22 (a high school read). We have both been surprised by how much richer and more satisfying these books are when read as adults. I don’t think we had enough life experience to draw on when we originally read them to fully appreciate them. I couldn’t stand The Great Gatsby when I read it in 7th grade, yet on this re-reading I was actually moved by the lyrical style of Fitzgerald and now count it among my favorite books. I completely lacked the cynicism necessary to appreciate Catch-22; now as a jaded 40 year old, the almost surrealistic nightmare that Yossarian finds himself living through, despite the best efforts of almost everyone and everything around him, was more infuriating and moving than humorous.

    If only we knew when a book would speak to us the best and most deeply.

  3. Marie-Therese
    at 12:50 pm on November 11, 2011

    This year I started rereading the classics and so far, it has been a deeply satisfying experience. I even was completely on board with the wild plot twists at the end of Jane Eyre the way I hadn’t been during my teenager years because now I understand it’s not supposed to be a realistic story. The only downside to reading the classics is that current fiction seems washed out, misshapen in comparison.

  4. Modern Things » Read this.
    at 3:34 pm on November 11, 2011

    [...] The Pleasures and Perils of Re-Reading. [...]

  5. Book Group Buzz – Discussion of Book Clubs, Reading Lists, and Literary News – Booklist Online » Blog Archive » On Rereadings
    at 11:18 am on November 12, 2011

    [...] just enjoyed a fine essay on the pleasures and perils of re-reading at The Millions and I’m thinking about how re-reading applies to book groups. Personally, I [...]

  6. On Re-reading (Again) « SONYA CHUNG
    at 12:52 pm on November 12, 2011

    [...] I’m glad that there’s some buzz about re-reading on the blogs — prompted by Patricia Meyers Spacks‘s recently released On Rereading. A couple of related posts at the Book Bench, and at The Millions. [...]

  7. My Daily Tweets 11.12.11 « memoirs on a rainy day
    at 11:26 pm on November 12, 2011

    [...] reread or not to reread? On “the pleasures and perils of rereading” (bit.ly/sdqF1N) 12 [...]

  8. November 13 2011 « bibblebabble
    at 5:29 am on November 13, 2011

    [...] US: At The Millions, Lisa Levy explores the literature about The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading. [...]

  9. Matt
    at 2:08 pm on November 13, 2011

    I don’t (can’t) reread as much as I’d like. This excellent essay made me think about how rereading has changed my approach to reading more than a few times. I remembered starting an author (Melville, Hawthorne, Mann) years ago in a casual, curious way only to be turned off and ultimately disgusted by their style or concerns or whatever.

    But years later, I picked up one or more of their books for reasons of necessity or self-criticism and was totally blown away. Invisible Man made so much more sense the second time around, as did The Magic Mountain and a bunch of others. I think what Lisa Levy is saying about rereading as learning is a bull’s eye. You can’t know what you don’t know (the mark of any decent education) until you revisit what had previously baffled you.

    It’s a way to sort of mark your intellectual development on the wall- different heights, different ages…thanks for opening this up!

  10. Paul
    at 3:48 pm on November 13, 2011

    I revisit Flann O’Brien’s Third Policeman and At Swim Two Birds, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, Russell Hoban’s Lion of Joaz Boachin and Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex every few years. I have also reread some others with mixed results. I have found that I must have been horribly uncritical in my youth when I actually enjoyed Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein. My maturing resulted in a greater sensitivity to the author’s lens instead of being only swept up in the narrative.

    But it is curious that literature is perhaps the only art which re-viewing by the intended audience (everyday readers) is considered unusual. I listen to the same cds year after year, see movies more than once, and nobody blinks an eye. But rereading is seen as strange. Though I suppose that is to be expected when in some circles still reading novels is already a bit unusual,

  11. Bound to Change Us | Grierson Huffman
    at 6:42 am on November 14, 2011

    [...] The Millions Lisa Levy writes about the pleasures and perils of rereading. This entry was posted in Reading and tagged lisa levy, reread, the millions. Bookmark the [...]

  12. The Literary Stew
    at 8:24 am on November 14, 2011

    I recently had to reread Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. While I didn’t care for it the first time, I loved it the second time around. I think I was too busy expecting something to happen the first time around. Knowing the ending allowed me to concentrate on the characters and their plight. Rereading it has made me realize Ishiguro really is a brilliant writer.

  13. Monday Snax « Little Stories
    at 12:36 pm on November 14, 2011

    [...] The Pleasures and Perils of Re-Reading. These days, I don’t make time for re-reading anything, which is something of a shame. I’ll probably start re-reading in my middle age. Right now, there’s too much still to be read. I do miss the distinct pleasure of returning to a beloved book, however. I bought the lovely and widely acclaimed Pevear/Volonkhosky translation of Anna Karenina at the aforementioned book sale, however, and I may have to return to that soon… (The Millions) [...]

  14. Dawn.
    at 9:17 pm on November 14, 2011

    What a lovely, interesting essay. As a kid and teenager I would reread my favorite books all the time, but as I transitioned into college I almost completely stopped rereading. I felt, as Spacks mentioned, that rereading was an extravagance. I didn’t think I could afford it. Now I feel differently (again). I missed rereading, and find it to be an illuminating and enriching experience, whatever the outcome.

  15. Dave
    at 12:14 pm on November 15, 2011

    Tolkien schmolkien – I’ll take Jane.

  16. Sharayah
    at 3:18 pm on November 15, 2011

    I absolutely identify with the guilt factor- I’ve got a stack 20 books high waiting to be read, and yet all I want to do is re-read Tolkien!

    How about the idea of re-reading in short spurts? I sometimes pick up a book I have already finished (and loved) and read a chapter or two just to revisit the enjoyment I felt. I don’t actually finish the book again, but a little taste is all it takes to revisit it, like watching a single episode of a well loved TV series.

  17. The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading | James Russell Ament
    at 8:51 am on November 16, 2011

    [...] The Millions, an essay by Lisa Levy—the money quote: As long as we keep rereading, however, we never have the [...]

  18. Rereading books « mylivereads
    at 5:49 pm on November 16, 2011

    [...] What do you think about rereading books? Are there favorites that you revisit multiple times? Here is an interesting article about rereading books: The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading. [...]

  19. Links: Time theft. « La Linterna del Monstro
    at 9:06 am on November 17, 2011

    [...] “The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading,” a wonderful article by Lisa Levy. I don’t want to spoil this for you because it’s such a well-written and formulated [...]

  20. Jane Austen, #1 Author for Rereading
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    [...] reader (former Slovene exchange students Katja Zupan) pointed me to this article about rereading the classics. The article in turn alerted me to a recent must-read book on the [...]

  21. Writing Jane Austen — Elizabeth Aston « booklolly
    at 11:08 am on November 26, 2011

    [...] For more on reading Austen check out:  http://www.themillions.com/2011/11/the-pleasures-and-perils-of-rereading.html [...]

  22. Rereading « Rants, Raves & Recommendations
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    [...] Rereading “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security. How nice to be able to return to what … [...]

  23. Don’t Let Me Down | Bark: A Blog of Literature, Culture, and Art
    at 9:01 am on December 5, 2011

    [...] few weeks ago, I read an interesting essay about rereading books. It got me thinking about which books I reread often and which ones I’m [...]

  24. Link Roundup (12/3-12/9) « Wrapped Up in Books
    at 6:21 pm on December 9, 2011

    [...] Pleasures and Perils of Rereading [The Millions] GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); [...]

  25. Link tag Tuesday #59 – the Antarctica edition (with ranty Moleskine editorial)
    at 5:01 am on December 13, 2011

    [...] thought is kind of mute now that I own a Kindle, but I think if I was in my Antarctic tent I’d rather re-read books that I’m already familiar with than start something new.  As this article notes, there’s a pleasure in reading familiar words, and when you’re [...]

  26. Link Gems « Kinna Reads
    at 7:30 am on December 18, 2011

    [...] The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading (from The Millions) 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. [...]

  27. Update: Books I Want To Reread | A Room of One's Own
    at 8:03 am on January 28, 2012

    [...] love this quote by Allegra Goodman on re-reading, which I found at The Millions: “I think unfolding is what rereading is about. Like pleated fabric, the text reveals different [...]

  28. on my mind . . . on rereading / relistening | Hawaiian Music for Listening Pleasure
    at 11:23 am on January 2, 2013

    [...] is some food for thought I want to share from an essay titled “The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading” by blogger Lisa Levy, posted on the blog The Mil…. First, a widely-wuoted remark from  author William [...]

  29. Reading is re-reading « brisebois blog
    at 10:27 am on January 29, 2013

    [...] via The Millions. [...]

  30. A thought: On rereading. | A Passion for Dead Leaves
    at 2:45 pm on January 5, 2014

    […] I love this quote by Allegra Goodman on re-reading, which I found at The Millions: […]

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