On Rereading: the analysis of pleasure, the pleasure of analysis

The Swerve, by Stephen Goldblatt, is a book that I read twice… immediately after finishing I went back and started again. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery I reread just before the book group discussion… after about a year. I reread A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, for the bicentennial, after a lapse of many years.

I reread for many different reasons, and with different results. A few years ago I decided to reread the “girls’ books” that were so important to me in adolescence…  Little Women, Heidi, The Secret Garden, Freckles, among them. Gag me! How did we ever take these seriously!?

But Anne of Green Gables has stood up well. So has To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies. I hated teaching Treasure Island, and The Time Machine.  Both the class and I were much happier with Jurassic Park... not a “classic”, criticised by some colleagues as “junk” fiction, but far more informative, exciting, and thought-provoking!

I recently reread Jane Eyre after recommending it to my grand-daughter as one of my favourite books. She hated it, so I had to check it out… yes, she was right! My grand-daughter had pointed out that Jane is a beautiful character, but a self-martyring wimp. She is an orphan, abused by her aunt in her foster home, abused in that awful boarding school, taken advantage of in her role as governess, led to the altar by a deceitful bigamist, given a proposal of marriage by another man who only wants to exploit her goodness and talents in his missionary work. She is intelligent, kind, honest, hard-working, sincere; she deserves better! Then she goes back to Rochester, the man who had deceived and humiliated her and broken her heart! The great house is ruined and the man is blind, but the reunion is tearfully accepted as a happy ending!  So I reread Wuthering Heights… utterly ghastly, and Gone with the Wind… chauvinistic, racist… Scarlett is a despicable, selfish, destructive woman.

I won’t stop rereading because I know that I often read far too quickly to absorb and remember detail. That’s why I read with post it notes and a pencil in my hand, to mark the passages I want to remember and to savour… and so that I will be able to find those passages again. It is also very interesting to read the marginal gloss I entered into a book in an earlier reading and compare it to my latest reaction.

Do you read… and reread… very much!? For me, a day without at least an hour reading is like a day without sunshine, a day without coffee, a day without satisfaction.

The articles that I refer to below analyse the phenomena of security (having your original reaction to the book validated and confirmed) and change (realizing that you have grown out of the book, your taste and intellectual sophistication have moved on, and the social context to-day makes the book irrelevant as a comment on life and behaviour.)

Rereading a book may create surprising reactions.  Bharat Tandon, one of the judges for the 2012 Man Booker Prize for Fiction has recently written about this twice in The Times Literary Supplement.

I am not suggesting that you read either article… I knew very few of the examples in the first, and the second is very long and detailed. But the excerpts I pulled are interesting observations about rereading.

In a TLS blog, The rereading habits of the TLS staff, he says

But rereading… can be one of life’s particularly rich experiences: it is where the narratives of novels and the narratives of our own lives “can converge meaningfully”.  When we reread we remember where we were the first time, who we were and how we were. We realize how we reacted differently to a text when we were younger, or sicker, or holidaying or studying. “We may try to be semioticians . . . but autobiography is always breaking in.”

The following excerpts  are from a very detailed review,  Different people, different books, of two scholarly books on the subject.

 … A book’s propensity to provoke thought,  for me, stands high among its virtues ….

…  experience in life, that standard against which we judge whatever we find in a book, includes experience of other books, which . . . contributes to the assessment of each new text, and …  it didn’t take long for me to realize how much fun it was to reach back into my past reading…. I also came to realize that all unwittingly I was writing what amounted to the autobiography of a lifelong reader ….

…  It is to her credit that she remains carefully distanced from uncritical worship of childhood reading, of texts that have no capacity to grow along with their readers, as witnessed by her honest description of the double perspective that she records: “The sense of having it both ways, of preserving the joy that is the object of nostalgia while possessing new powers of understanding, makes the rereading of treasures from long ago especially satisfying” ….

… When I write about my own experience of books, though, I write necessarily as a reader of a certain kind. I am one who “takes a book apart” – a phrase often used by those who think of this activity as the antithesis of “just enjoying.” I think – I feel – I know that taking a book apart, making myself conscious of how the elements of its construction work with one another to generate emotional, moral, and intellectual effects, is itself a powerful mode of pleasure. The more I understand, the more I enjoy. The more questions I ask of myself and of the book, the more I can see; the more I see, the more I feel  ….

… “What did you make of that book?”, runs the conventional phrase. As we revisit the objects of our reading, like recognizable but weathered landmarks, there can be no full going back, because we are not exactly the same people we were; but the consolation of rereading is the knowledge that we are these different people in part because of what those books have made of us….

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