A Riff on Rereading

I took down Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander last night, and as I held the book in my hands I contemplated the pleasurable feeling of expectation.

When I first read a great book I am no longer I, but ego dissolves away into an eye, absorbed completely into the world of the story, remerging at the end with that snap of the spiritual umbilicus.  I use birth imagery here in part because the emotions seem to be akin in a way; the joy that comes of a great book whelms that painful separation and summary reintroduction of the I.

What I have born is a memory, which overlays the pages with a palimpsest:  a vision of the day I first sat down in my reading chair, curious, disengaged, the warm summer air wafting through my open window the distant cries of children running on the grass;  during the bleakness of a winter day, the sweet spice of cinnamon-laced hot chocolate at my side; a third image, just a flash, splashing across the deep green lawns of Mount Vernon, the book tucked firmly under my arm to protect it, at least, as I cannot protect my clothing, for I had no idea that a storm was coming.  I took the book along in case I had to wait in line to see Washington’s home.

These memories, like offspring, ramify outward, intersecting with others’ memories: “Oh, you’ve read it too?  What first hooked you?  What did you think of Diana?”  Now I remember what this person said about the opening at Port Mahon (“I was there just last summer, and I actually got to hear music, but it was just a band . . .”), what that person said about Stephen’s view of the ’98 in Ireland.

I open the book.  The chattering voices in my head cease.

For now the boundaries between past and present are thrown down, as are those between this world and that.  A reread means I will remain an I, observing what I know will come to pass (anticipating, relishing, studying); the eye stays right there in the story whose power to draw me in and keep me there has not the least diminished.

Unusual structure, fascinating shifts in tone, vivid detail given to every character no matter how briefly seen, afford a glimpse of the greatness to come.

The first time through a book I only have time to react.  What pulls me back for a second, or third, or uncounted reread?  There is anticipation: whereas on the first read I galloped blind, guided by the author, on the second the blinkers are off and I can see where I am going, and even look forward to the highlights of the journey.

On subsequent reads, my attention becomes increasingly absorbed by the author’s choice of road, of scenery, of pace: I finally become fascinated by the grip of their hand on the reins.

My good books can, no, must be revisited repeatedly.  It’s become a truism how as we grow older and our perceptions change, so too does our perspective on a given book. Only through many readings can one so know a book the entirety takes shape in the mind.

I love to read other readers’ writings on reading, but I get extra pleasure seeing my favorite books, the ones I know well, through others’ eyes.

I can understand why people spend entire lifetimes playing the Shakespeare game, that is trying to descry the human being behind the scintillant words: the densest exegesis is a passionate argument, to another Shakespeare lover, with the ghostly form on the other side of the curtain of time.  Shakespeare—Jane Austen—Patrick O’Brian—were once living, breathing human beings, who sat down with paper and pen to entertain, to banish for a short while the boundaries of their world by creating a new one.  I can walk on stones where they once walked, touch a cushion or a piece of clothing their hands once handled, but their skulls lie locked in vaults.  They are gone, they cannot speak.  What remains are their worlds, which I will continue to circumnavigate as long as I live, discovering new things every visit, and talking about them with other wayfarers I meet on the way.  And so the worlds, at least, will propagate.

This is why I always think of Vergil when I contemplate rereading, when he said:  Non canimus surdis, respondent omnia silvae, or  Not to deaf ears I sing, for the woods echo my singing.

Let us read—talk—keep them alive.



A Riff on Rereading — 5 Comments

  1. I am convinced that the greatest gift we can give our children is the love of books.

  2. And watching my girls find that love has been wonderful. The Younger Daughter came home with Memoirs of a Geisha yesterday, crooning “This is such a wonderful book!”

    I’ve been doing proof-reading on some of the books in the definitive editions of Heinlein’s works. Some of them are, well, of their time; his politics sometimes make me want to bite things; and his refusal to put commas where I would put them drives me nuts. But I’m working on Glory Road, the first of Heinlein’s books that I read, and there are lines–and passages–that put me immediately in the head of my 14 year old self and remind me of her pleasure in reading a book that was both heartfelt and satiric, with some references I encountered with delight (“Then we come to a road of brick, very nice.” “Yellow brick?” “Yes. Does it matter?” “No, but don’t make a hobbit of it.”) and others that sailed over my head for years (that was Cyrano in the tower! Been to the moon! I get it!). I’m reading closely, because of the job, and there are things I am noticing for the first time, and that makes it not just re-discovery but discovery (and I get paid for doing it! FTW)

    Every time I read Jane Eyre, perhaps my favorite book of books, I find new things. Your essay made me realize that with each reading I’m having a dialogue of sorts with Charlotte Brontë as well as Jane. Cool

  3. Pilgrimsoul: Thanks! 🙂

    Brenda: I fully agree. . . though my kids turned out not to be readers. (One is a musician, the other a filmmaker.)

    Madeleine: one of my favorite forms of reread, when I really know a book, is to read it concurrently with the writer’s letters, and a good bio. For example, when I read the Brontes, I have Barker’s bio at hand, a collection of letters. Shifting back and forth gives me glimpses of perspective into the mind behind the quill.

    I especially love doing with with the Shelley menage–over the years I have collected a formidable amount of primary source material, so I don’t get very far, but shifting back and forth between all their voices is just endlessly fascinating.

  4. It is a constant pleasure to me to wade into my son’s room, breasting my way through the mounds of STAR WARS paperbacks. And my daughter’s grumping about how seedy the libraries are on US Army bases is delightful.