Tuesday, January 12, 2010

To reread or not to reread?

“A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.”
-Robertson Davies

One difference between literature and film, for consumers, is the concept of revisiting. Most often we only buy a movie (unless it's a gift for someone) if we are likely to view it more than once. Otherwise, thanks to 21st century technology we can resort easily and cost-efficiently to rental services like Netflix, Blockbuster and iTunes. I bought Slumdog Millionaire because it was an Oscar-winner, and because the first time I saw it I was concentrating on reading the subtitles. I bought Knocked Up because I love Seth Rogen, and who doesn't sometimes need a dose of humor therapy?

Conversely, many readers purchase rather than borrow, regardless. Libraries don't have the same glitz as video stores and movie-rental websites, and they don't deliver to your mailbox. There are book rental services like BooksFree.com, but the prices are higher and the selection is more sparse than with movie outfits. From my perspective, the prospect of one day building a chestnut-walled, rolling-ladder-equipped study lined with abundantly stocked bookshelves is motivation enough to spend my Barnes & Noble gift certificates solely on books rather than the “buy one DVD, get one half-off” sale, and to hold onto all my college coursebooks, which after four years range from Thomas Paine pamphlets to doorstop science textbooks (one-time harbingers of my medical career) to the entire Jane Austen collection to the Oxford History of Western Art to Susan Sontag essay collections to translated Greek tragedies.

Needless to say, even when I add a book to my ever-flowering collection, I don’t necessarily intend to reread it. Sometimes it's the New York Times bestseller I didn't want to wait on the library queue for, or the classic I imagined with my name penciled in its cover, even knowing I'd devote only one read-through to it. In his 1922 article "The Buying of Books" in The Atlantic, Carl S. Patton writes,

"I have always felt that one should buy as many books as possible. They are not like food, of which one should buy only as much as one can consume at the moment. Nor like clothes, of which a wise man will buy as few and as cheap as he can get by with. But of books he should buy all he can."

On a similar note, Patrick Kurp records the last stanza of Timothy Steele's poem "The Library" and writes on his blog Anecdotal Evidence, "

'Winding, as though along a corkscrew's thread,
A squirrel has circled down a sycamore.
The frail must, in fair times, collect and store,
And so, amid swirled papery debris,
The squirrel creeps, nosing round, compelled to hoard
By instinct, habit, and necessity

Like the squirrel, we hoard – acorns, books."

Then what does make a book, plucked from its crowded neighborhood, re-readable? What books do we return to, how often, and why?

Off the top of my head, I can count on one hand books that I have read more than once outside the classroom, excluding children's picture books or poetry/nursery rhyme collections. Here’s a list of these five:

-Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
-The Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
-The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
-Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
-Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

It seems these five have a commonality: authenticating the existence of true literary craft across times and places. A reread of each book always revealed to me something fresh, both internally to the material and externally. It's inspiring to be reminded of the power of hand-to-heart writing, especially amid some of the dreariness of modern life. But it takes a lot longer on average to read a book than to watch a movie. And I keep lists that span pages and pages sorting gads of books I hope to have time to read: one on my iPhone, several in each of the Moleskines I keep in my bags, one on my computer, one in a Google doc. One exists in the animate form of my mother, whose book recommendations culled from her book group and reader friends have proven trusty. So what made it seem worthwhile to go back, to thumb through the pages of these books and make the conscious decision to turn anew to their Page One?

Each of the five is a transporting piece, one that sends the reader soaring into an elsewhere, be it historical or fantastical. But doesn’t all literature serve this purpose of escape, if not quite as manifestly as the lattermost three on the list? If we reread only to savor that fade-out of reality, we might as well read a new book altogether, for an even more salient travel experience.

Perhaps each of the works also harbors several layers of significance, bringing fresh fodder for thought to each reading depending on age and circumstances, just as Robertson Davies attests to above. I might not have picked up on Swift’s deeply satirical and allegorical commentary on British and French enmity if I hadn’t yet been exposed to the historical background. I might not, the first or second time around, have really felt a profound appreciation for the masterful artworks in Tracy Chevalier’s diamond of a novel without the art history courses in whose vast riches of knowledge I’ve now been steeped for the past few years. On the books blog "The Millions", Samantha Peale writes in a post on her year in reading,

"The novels I reread over the years take on different meanings, they change and deepen, my favorite sections shift. Sometimes a book that once held great meaning doesn’t quite reach me anymore and instead I’m reminded of other stories, themes or styles that are of more present interest. "

What about, on a related note, books we read at too young an age to understand at all? In my 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I've checked off every one I've "read" cover to cover. Some I've actually mined the depths of- writing essays, holding discussions, scribbling margin notes, sharing passages with friends or family, just ruminating on my own time- like Frankenstein, The Count of Monte Cristo, Wuthering Heights, 1984, Beloved. But some I read nominally, like for a high school class or just to be able to cross it off the list, before I grew into a fundamental love of literature: The Sun Also Rises, Brave New World, As You Like It, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I have at best a hazy memory of books like these. Rereading prose that falls into this category would actually be like an inaugural reading, rather than like wiggling fingers into a familiarly soft old glove.

Or what about books we read at a young age whose comfort we return to for that very fact? Blogging on "Lit Drift", Toby Shuster ruminates on the advantages and disadvantages of rereading childhood literary classics like Little House on the Prairie, but ultimately concludes,

"The fond memories I have of the Little House book remain, no matter how maligned. And maybe Wilder’s simplistic narration of an era so far removed allows us to better comprehend the monotony in our own day-to-day routines. Because sitting in a cubicle isn’t nearly as arduous as churning butter."

Whatever the reason, whatever the effect, I like the fact that this issue is one free of influence from the digitization of publishing, other than maybe the ease of obtaining books to be reread. For now, without a firm grasp on the mental process behind rereading great books, I’ll stick to DVRing movies and saving enough money to build those wraparound bookshelves that sparkle somewhere. And, after all, when it comes down to it,

"The real secret of re-reading is simply this: It is impossible. The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the reader always does. Pip is always there to be revisited, but you, the reader, are a little like the convict who surprises him in the graveyard — always a stranger."

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