Happiness is Re-Reading

“Incidentally, I use the word reader very loosely.  Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.  A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a re-reader.” [1] -Vladimir Nabokov


“For every thinking person each verse of each poet will show a new and different face every few years, will awaken a different resonance in him.”  -Hermann Hesse


…And the short story can be easily reread; often it must be reread.  Like the diamond, the short story throws off glints of meaning.” -Thomas Gullason


“My greatest wish – other than salvation – was to have a book.  A long book with a never-ending story.  One I could read again and again with new eyes and a fresh understanding each time.”  [2]-Yann Martel


    If you do a search on Amazon.com under that tired phrase ‘Must Read’, among the titles returned will be, “100 Must-Read Life Changing-Books”, “100 Must-Read Books for Men” and “501 Must Read Books”.  The idea that one would line up books and knock them off one-by-one, like targets in a shooting gallery, probably appeals very well to the modern conscious.  We love lists.  Most of our days are one long list that stretches into tomorrow and after.  But when it comes to books one must read (or for that matter, places one must go, movies one must see, etc.) lists are only for those who wish to say I’ve read it, who wish to put a little check mark next to the most recent conquest so that the next tome in the progression may be taken up, and nothing more.  The product description for one book talks about reading the books they have listed so one can ‘understand and appreciate the written word‘.  Somehow I doubt that either much understanding or appreciating is accomplished in this manner. 

    Recently one night, when I was thumbing through the pages of a story collection, I came across Willa Cather’s Paul’s Case, a story I had perhaps read twice.  I decided to read it again.  My memory of the story was faint, but a few things remained from my previous reading.  There was a line that I thought went something like, “everybody agreed that Paul’s case was a particularly hard one”, and I was pretty sure this line opened the story.  I was also quite sure that the story took place in some small Midwestern town.  Finally, I thought the narrator of the story was someone who was trying to help Paul through his tough time.  It is needless to say I was wrong on all points.  Now this was a story that I had last read perhaps ten years ago, but I thought it was a good story when I read it – I had my little mark next to it that told me I really liked it.  After I finished though I felt as if I had never laid eyes upon the words.  Ever.  The line I remembered was somewhat similar, but only one person thought Paul’s case was hard, not everybody.  And the line occurred in the middle of the story, not the very beginning.  The setting was Pittsburg and New York City – so much for a small Midwestern town.  Finally, the point of view is third person omniscient.  Paul is alone in his struggles.

    Now I’ll readily admit that I have a poor memory (just ask anyone who knows me well), so this might all be chalked up to habitual inattentiveness or a mental defect.  But I don’t think so.  As Vladamir Nabokov makes clear in his essay Good Readers and Good Writers, it lies within the nature of prose itself and the reading of it.  “In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it.  We have no physical organ…that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy the details.” [1]  In other words, one reading is never enough to fully absorb anything written; a book or story, a research paper or technical manual.  Some point will always be overlooked.  Some detail will have remained hidden.  The tone and undercurrent of some dialogue will have escaped our attention.  One reading is not enough to even retain the basic outline for long.  Throw in a five to ten year interval between readings and the structure of even the most profound and forceful writing will fade in memory like the faces brief acquaintances.

    In another instance, not too long ago I finished reading E.B. White’s essayOnce More to the Lake – again.  It is probably about the sixth time I have read this essay in the past twenty or so years.  Over this period of time I have never been disappointed in two things:  its ability to stir me emotionally and my profound surprise in its ability to present some seemingly new detail or impart some new connection.  For instance, this time I was particularly cognizant of the references to time in the piece.  Mr. White repeatedly tells how there appears to have been no passage of time as he revisits the lake where his family vacationed when he was a child.  Take for instance the fourth paragraph in which he talks of driving to the lake and upon finally arriving he “could tell that it was going to be pretty much the same as it had been before… .” [3]  Later while fishing, a dragonfly alighted onto his fishing pole and right then he knew “that the years were a mirage and that there had been no years.” [3]  There are other similar comments made too, but then comes the final sentence of the essay where this illusion is destroyed and the true passage of time is felt strongly and poignantly.  I don’t know why, but the obviously intended connection between these various lines had never struck me before.  

    So we should re-read the writings that touch us in order to re-experience and enjoy the things that were there before, but also the things that weren‘t – the things that are going to inevitably show themselves as your subconscious, over time, ponders and links and digests.  But there is an additional consideration too.  As time moves on, we grow and experience new things.  We are not the same people we were when our eyes first met the page in question.  If a long enough period sits between readings, why should a text not present itself differently to us each time just from the mere fact that we looking at it from a different personal perspective?  Case-in-point, I would be a fool to think that I read White’s essay in the same way after my son was born, than before.  It just isn’t possible.  But there doesn’t have to be such a dramatic reason for a different perspective.  I would also be wrong in thinking I read Truman Capote’s Children on Their Birthdays the same last year as I did five or ten years ago, or Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily, or Cheever’s The Enormous Radio.  Just the fact that I am a better reader, I hope, today than last year makes it inevitable that I’ll look at these stories differently.  And what, if anything, does this have to do with short prose pieces?  Only this:  they afford the best opportunity for multiple readings and thererfore the best opportunity for intimate familiarity.

    Flannery O’Connor wrote that with respect to short stories, “A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded.  A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you.  In fiction two and two is always more than four.” [4]  It is the same for excellent nonfiction, and the only way you continue to see more in a story or essay is to read it and read it and read it.  If this sounds like I am espousing some kind of ‘professional‘ study, I‘m not.  Re-reading your favorite writings should be pleasurable.  The stories we like should be cherished as things whose potentiality might never be exhausted.  We should attach ourselves to them again and again because they are saying to us ‘something of you lies within these words’ (see note).  Jorge Luis Borges wrote that “A book is a thing among things, a volume lost among the volumes that populate the indifferent universe, until it meets its reader, the person destined for its symbols.” [5]

    So when we re-inhabit an old written world whose symbols it seems were meant for us, it will, if we are lucky, most always seem a little different in some way.  And this is something indeed to be happy about – to be able to journey repeatedly through something that feels comfortable and familiar enough, yet in a way feels profoundly and wonderfully unfamiliar.  Maybe it will happen that one day I’ll read Once More to the Lake and it will have no more surprises for me, nothing new to say to me.  That’s OK.  Reading a good story again is satisfying in and of itself.  The happiness it alone gives is all the reason that‘s ever really needed anyway.

1. Nabikov, Vladimir, Good Readers and Good Writers, The Norton Reader, Twelfth Ed., Linda H. Peterson and John C. Brereton, Eds., pgs. 1032-1037.

2. Martel, Yann, Life of Pi, Harcourt, Inc., pg. 207

3. White, E.B., Once More to the Lake, One Man’s Meat, pgs. 198-204.
4. O’Connor, Flannery, Mystery and Manners
5. Borges, Jorge Luis, Prologues to a Personal Library, Selected Non-Fictions, Eliot Weinberger, Ed., pg. 513.

Note:  It may be stating the obvious, but it needs to be understood here that I am not saying when you like a story or essay, that that means you can directly relate to the plot, or the characters, or anything so concrete.  For instance, a story about addiction touches you because you were once an addict.  Maybe in some instances you can indeed relate in this way, but is not essential or perhaps even desired.  If it were imagine how little in Art we would or could appreciate.  We all know writers want to make the specific, universal; the transitory, eternal.  That explains why we don’t have to be an aged Mississippian to understand and appreciate a story set in the Mississippi of the 1930s.  But it does not explain why we might like one story set there and not another; one author’s way of storytelling and not another’s.  In physics there is a phenomenon called sympathetic vibration.  It can be demonstrated very simply: a tuning fork is struck and then held very closely to another, silent fork.  If the vibrating fork is brought close enough, the silent fork will begin to vibrate too if it has a frequency or harmonic similar to the first.  If it does not, the unstruck fork remains silent.  The similarity to when we resonate with a piece of writing (or music, etc.) is obvious.  What constitutes the internal harmonic within us that resonates is still a mystery though.  That is the “something” I am referring to above and the connection that happens is a thing the writer Amy Tan has referred to as “an act of magic.”

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