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View Full Version : Rereading and the implications of trying to step in the same river twice



ColoradoGuy
06-27-2012, 03:51 AM
It's been 42 years now since I first read any of the Presocratic philosophers. I remember enjoying the fact that all we have from them are fragments or quotations of their words by others. So the reading was easy, because there was little of it, and pondering the meaning was the point. Heraclitus is tagged with the notion that everything is in flux, changing: "you cannot step twice into the same river."

An interesting recent book by Patricia Meyer Spacks (http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674062221) (excellently reviewed in the TLS here (http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1014155.ece)) considers the implications of this notion to rereading. She undertook the project of rereading dozens of novels she had read as a child, young adult, middle-aged adult, and elderly person.

I think all of us reread old favorites. For example, I can open David Copperfield, The Great Gatsby, Catch-22, War and Peace, or The Phantom Toll Booth almost anywhere and know where I am. Its pleasure is similar to putting on a riding duster I've had for 30 years. But is the book the same book each time I open it? The coat changes little by little over the years; it's now quite a different color and the fraying where the hem rubs on the saddle stirrups gets more pronounced every year.

To me this is a variant of Heraclitus--and Reader Response Theory, too. The book is different with each encounter. We rewrite it each time we reread it. Spacks rereads Alice in Wonderland in this way:

“To see Alice as a Cartesian heroine may encourage us to discover her unexpected resemblance to some other figure from the works accumulated in that miscellaneous collection in our heads. To think of her as having identity problems makes her suddenly, comically congruent with a host of modern and postmodern characters. In other words, talking about such matters as pragmatism and identity in connection with a children’s book can heighten the reader’s consciousness, and to heighten consciousness enlarges the inlets of pleasure. The more I think about Alice, the more interesting she becomes to me. A book’s propensity to provoke thought, for me, stands high among its virtues.”

For me, only a few books have this quality; I have no interest in rereading most of them. The result of Spacks meditation, to me, is unsurprising: some books have staying power, most don't. Individual tastes will differ. My continuing quest is to find those books that I will want to read again, the ones which will become old friends -- like my riding coat.

I just wish I knew how to identify them in advance. I'm really like a blind squirrel looking for a nut.

Literateparakeet
06-27-2012, 05:33 AM
Your post reminds me of a favorite quote:

Clinton Fadiman said, "When you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before, you see more in you than there was before".

Not all "classics" do this for me, I mean in the sense that as you said I don't feel a yearning to read them again.

A couple I do chose to read again and again are The Chosen by Chaim Potok, Watership Down by Richard Adams (I know it's crazy, but every time I finish I "miss" those rabbits. I would love to be able to write characters like that...that readers miss when the book is done.) The Giver by Lois Lowry.

Dawnstorm
07-08-2012, 02:55 AM
When I read the thread title I thought "hermeneutic circle". When I read the review, and in particular this quote,


“To see Alice as a Cartesian heroine may encourage us to discover her unexpected resemblance to some other figure from the works accumulated in that miscellaneous collection in our heads. To think of her as having identity problems makes her suddenly, comically congruent with a host of modern and postmodern characters. In other words, talking about such matters as pragmatism and identity in connection with a children’s book can heighten the reader’s consciousness, and to heighten consciousness enlarges the inlets of pleasure. The more I think about Alice, the more interesting she becomes to me. A book’s propensity to provoke thought, for me, stands high among its virtues.”

I thought more of Intertextuality, and the issues that surround it (such as the discussion of the "canon"). There appear to be autobiographical elements, too, in the book, but I'm not sure whether that's the focus of the book or rather a theoretical framework to introduce time. The above quote, for example, is strikingly impersonal.

What do I mean by this? Well, if I were to write such a book at the present moment, and I intended to view the books and their place in my biography, I'd have to reveal information about my private life I'm not comfortable to put "out there". But to simply ignore them and only talk about book-specific stuff changes the topic. I'm not talking about the book in real-life context; I'm isolating certain aspects in a theoretical manner and talking about them. If you look at the above quote, you get:

1. "unexpected resemblance to some other figure from the works accumulated in that miscellaneous collection in our heads", "comically congruent with a host of modern and postmodern characters"... - the books place in your "head canon"

2. "such matters as pragmatism and identity in connection with a children’s book" - genre expectaions

3. So when I arrive at: "The more I think about Alice, the more interesting she becomes to me. A book’s propensity to provoke thought, for me, stands high among its virtues." this sounds to me more like a justification of intertextual theory than about the actual process of reading (what goes on in your head).

That's makredly different form a line from your post:


Its pleasure is similar to putting on a riding duster I've had for 30 years. But is the book the same book each time I open it? The coat changes little by little over the years; it's now quite a different color and the fraying where the hem rubs on the saddle stirrups gets more pronounced every year.

This opens another can of worms:

The same copy of a book? The same edition/print run? The same text (but perhaps with different editorial notes, or a different introduction)? One of series of different available versions of a text?

And what about you yourself? Can you say the same word twice?

It's a very broad topic. If you want to talk about it all in terms of "panta r(h)ei" you'd need a sort of relativity theory of texts - in which no text can exceed the speed of thought. Only it gains an additional meta level, because of the narratives we form to understand our own lives.

For me, the most interesting part of the review was this:


Along these lines, she proposes one of the least dogmatic and most scathing criticisms of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books yet attempted: “Having read them now”, she argues, “I realize sharply that for me ‘security’ is not a sufficient reward for rereading. The Narnia books have stayed too completely the same: that’s why I won’t read them again”.

What I find interesting here is the reviewers emphasis on the line being a criticism, when I read it as equal part ciriticism and reader typology. It's also an interesting methodology: re-reading effect as to evaluate a book.

Or differently, if a consecutive reading doesn't reward you all that much, that doesn't really negate the value you got out of the first reading. How then do you integrate re-readability into a book-value scheme? For example, if you don't expect to ever re-read the books (for me that'd be the Harry Potter series, for example), are you likely to spend less money on it (for me it makes no difference)?

Or as a writer: do you go for re-readability? If so, how do you avoid being too obscure the first time round (thus making a second reading less likely)?

[For example, when I go to critique threads - less and less, these days - I often get a sense of: "I don't get why this is here - fix it". As a reader, I'm not bothered at all by little mysteries; I get the opposite reaction - I often don't want those little things to get fixed - they tend to make sense on a second reading, and even if they don't they give me a sense of open-endedness - which to me is part of what makes a text alive.]

Interesting find. Thanks for this thread.

Maxx
07-23-2012, 09:17 PM
It's been 42 years now since I first read any of the Presocratic philosophers. I remember enjoying the fact that all we have from them are fragments or quotations of their words by others. So the reading was easy, because there was little of it, and pondering the meaning was the point. Heraclitus is tagged with the notion that everything is in flux, changing: "you cannot step twice into the same river."

An interesting recent book by Patricia Meyer Spacks (http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674062221) (excellently reviewed in the TLS here (http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1014155.ece)) considers the implications of this notion to rereading. She undertook the project of rereading dozens of novels she had read as a child, young adult, middle-aged adult, and elderly person.



I was stuck on an Island last week and I had to read what had been left behind there. I hadn't read most of it before but I skipped all that and the Kurt Vonegut and started re-reading Pickering's Constructing Quarks (1984) which I dimly recalled not liking much long ago in the 1980s. This time around, it really did seem just plain quaint in a good way.
In fact I felt pretty silly for not having liked it in the 1980s.

It was strange just how many things had changed and how impossible it was for me to fathom what I had disliked about it.

RichardGarfinkle
07-23-2012, 10:16 PM
Rereading has always struck me as the most basic test of a book.

If I enjoyed it at 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 and each time find something new in it, or if I disliked it intensely at 15 and discovered a good in it at 30 that did not go away at later age, thenI feel the book is really worthwhile.

There are some books, and especially some poets that lodge in my mind and come out requiring rereading when a new perspective is needed.

These stories have an almost opposite existence to the stories I write, they need to be heard again instead of needing to be spoken.