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.