A creative writing professor once narrated a story about the relationship between his friend and Anna Karenina. When the friend first read Tolstoy’s novel as a young man, he was enthralled by Anna’s tragic fate. Re-reading it in middle age, he appreciated Levin’s efforts to simplify matters and live off the land. When he read it again years later, he was apt to throw up his hands at the shenanigans of all these young people.
Re-reading, then, can tell us more about ourselves than about the book in question. In a larger sense, it can also reflect how times have changed. Jonathan Yardley has written about how the experience of reading JD Salinger’s beloved The Catcher in the Rye was like looking into a mirror for generations of adolescents. Nowadays, it’s more likely to be seen as jejune, if not overly sentimental.
Nabokov, in his usual patrician manner, once remarked to a group of students that “one cannot read a book, one can only re-read it.” He meant that the act of reading should be active, even creative, and we ought to behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. Outside the classroom, however, the way we look at things changes over the years, and this is what re-reading can shine a light on.
For Vivian Gornick, one of America’s best literary essayists, re-reading a book that was important to her at an earlier time “is something like lying on the analyst’s couch. “The essays in her Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader published earlier this year vividly illustrate how changed conditions alter the way she thinks of favourite books.
An important theme, though not the only one, is her discovery that most female characters in the books she read when younger “were stick figures devoid of flesh and blood, there only to thwart or advance the fortunes of the protagonist whom I only just then realised was almost always male.”
Thus, her re-readings of DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers lead her to believe that the heart of the novel is not the struggle between Paul and his mother, “but between Paul and the illusion of sexual love as liberation.” With the novels of Elizabeth Bowen, Gornick realises that the author’s syntax was complicated because she “laboured to get on paper an emotional experience for which there were perhaps no words — or never the right words, or words she couldn’t put in the right order.”
These and more insights are leavened by accounts of changes in Gornick’s own circumstances, be it a fraught relationship with her mother, or the experience of living alone. Of Natalia Ginzberg, she writes: “I lived long enough to feel a stranger to myself… and reading Ginzburg again has provided solace as well as revelation.”
Pico Iyer was also among those struck by the work of Lawrence when he was young. Reading the short story, The Virgin and the Gypsy in school, he was thrilled by the writer’s “heroic energy, his unvarnished romanticism, his relentless, burning determination to tell a story about a young and inexperienced soul awakening to its destiny.” Years later, Iyer finds little subtlety, and instead “a cry for release from the stifling puritanism and hypocrisies of English provincial life.”
Iyer’s essay, as well as one by Gornick, is among those collected in Re-readings, an anthology edited by Anne Fadiman. In this selection from The American Spectator, a literary quarterly, writers reflect on their changed relationships with favourite books.
Among the notable contributions is one by Allegra Goodman, who writes of how Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has been a companion over the years. She first read it when she was nine, “a pert, excitable, giggly reader.” Later, studying English literature, she began to consider its strengths and weaknesses (“the liveliness of Lizzie and her sisters, against the inarticulate stiffness of Darcy”). Several readings later, she still returns to it “not because it is the best novel I have read, or the most important, but because of the memories and wishes I’ve folded in its pages — because on every reading I see old things in it.”
In her introduction, Fadiman puts it well when she says that reading has more velocity, while re-reading has more depth: “The former shut out the world in order to focus on the story; the latter dragged in the world in order to assess the story.” Re-reading can also help you remember what you used to be like: “your earnest, anxious, pretentious, embarrassing former self”.
It’s not that re-reading reveals right or wrong ways to think of a book; rather, it’s about how shifting sensibilities alter perceptions. Future generations of readers may well discover in the works of Lawrence or Salinger, or any other author, aspects that we are unaware of or have paid too little attention to.
There’s a pervasive exception to such a notion of re-reading, and it’s to do with those whose work seems to exist in an enchanted land far from our mundane existence. We re-read them to recreate the pleasure they once provided, a pleasure that remains undiminished.
The best example one can think of is PG Wodehouse. As Patricia Meyer Spacks writes in On Rereading, “Everything that I recently re-read by Wodehouse remained absolutely and completely the same as I remembered, and that seemed wonderful…Jeeves was entertaining as ever, in precisely the ways he was entertaining before.”
There’s little doubt that with Wodehouse, one can detach oneself from the world. In his own words, “if there is a better world to detach oneself from than the one functioning at the moment I have yet to hear of it.”Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.