A few days ago, I wrote a post on reading (and re-reading) what one writes. Today, I want to put down a few thoughts on the business of re-reading what one has read, sometimes willingly, sometimes not.
Susan Sontag once said, ‘All great books deserve to be read five times at least.’ When asked if she did so often, she replied in the affirmative. (I dimly remember her saying this during a 1992 interview at the 92nd Street Y.) I have never read a book five times–unless you count comic books like the Tintin series, which I’ve re-read dozens of times–but Sontag’s remarks still make acute sense. The most perspicuous definition of a classic book is one that endures, that is read and read again by successive generations, by a diversity of readers. We embody those diversities and temporal passages in our personalities and histories; what better way to enjoy the true worth of a classic than to expose our different selves, changes wrought in them by our unique experiences, to its endlessly multiplied offerings? It seems staggeringly obvious to me, as it has to many others, that Anna Karenina will be read differently once its reader has actually suffered an acute heartbreak or two, or lived through a slowly disintegrating relationship.
So this sort of re-reading is an acknowledgement of the dynamic relationship between writer and reader, and of the creative nature of reading itself, informed by the particular background that he or she brings to the text. There is another, more mundane, and possibly more infuriating kind of re-reading: when one forgets that a book on our shelves has already been read by us, or even when in returning to a book we are currently reading, we resume at the wrong point and realize that the pages we are staring at are ones that we have read before.
The former might occur to any reader with a sufficiently large library of suitable vintage. We scan through its shelves hunting down the unread, and sometimes forget that our catch is one that we had seized upon and read before. Sometimes we find out quickly as we enter its pages; sometimes revelation arrives late. I do not think the author should feel insulted that his work had failed to be memorable; our memories are strange things and we still have little idea of what makes some of its inhabitants long-term residents and others merely transitory visitors. Instead, he should hope that I find the revisitation sufficiently invigorating to continue. After all, doesn’t every writer want to be read and read again?
Moving on to the latter kind of re-reading. Resuming a book I’m currently reading, at the wrong point, is a common affliction for me. I do not use bookmarks–for some reason, I absolutely disdain them–and I often forget the page number where I had halted. I try to locate the point of departure but that quest often goes wrong, and so I plunge in with a guess. And sometimes, a page or so later, I come upon a passage that tells me I have been this way before. I find this experience curiously shaming sometimes: Was I not paying attention the last time I was reading these pages? But here again there is reassurance for both reader and writer: I get a second chance to put things right and pay heed to the writer’s efforts and the writer gets another opportunity to keep me hooked till the end. Oh, and yes, the writer gets read again.