ARE REREADINGS BETTER READINGS?
Posted by Nathaniel Stein
“One cannot read a book: one can only reread it,” Nabokov said. I thought of that line while reading “On Rereading,” Patricia Meyer Spacks’s charming and strange blend of memoir, literary criticism, and scientific treatise. Spacks, a literature professor and a former president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, systematically revisits “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Golden Notebook,” the novels of Jane Austen, and other milestones of her reading life. She hopes to justify the usefulness—or at least to solve a bit of the mystery—of an activity that she loves but also, at times, doubts.
Few would question looking at a great painting twice, or watching a favorite movie again and again. But, perhaps because rereading requires more of a commitment than giving something a second look, it is undertaken, as Spacks puts it, “in the face of guilt-inducing awareness of all the other books that you should have read at least once but haven’t.” It engages, she fears in her darker moments, a “sinful self-indulgence.” Never mind Nabokov, or Flaubert, who marvelled at “what a scholar one might be if one knew well only five or six books.”
Spacks’s constant fixation is the paradox of the simultaneous “sameness” and “difference” of rereading—how it is that the words are exactly the same but our perceptions of them so different? I’m more intrigued by another dilemma: are rereadings better readings?
Nabokov would say yes. In one of his lectures on literature, he said:
When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.
Spacks is ambivalent. She relishes a new appreciation of Bellow, which she first dismissed as tedious, irritating, and claustrophobic, but regrets her disappointment in Kingsley Amis’s “Lucky Jim,” J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” and their uncomplicated and grating protagonists. What rereading tells us about ourselves, and how we have evolved intellectually, is as important as what it tells us about the books, Spacks believes. She’s endlessly interested in “how our minds, hearts, experience, personal and cultural situation, or all of the above … have changed since the last time we read those words.”
For Nabokov, another reading was always constructive. But for Spacks, rereading—though satisfying for pure literary analysis—can reveal unwelcome truths about our past selves, and cause disenchantment—in the most literal sense—with the books we used to love.
I suspect that Spacks’s priority, on the deepest level, is close to Nabokov’s pleasure principle: her book’s best chapter is on children’s literature. Here we get delightful examinations of “Alice in Wonderland,” the Narnia books, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped,” and more—close readings that marry grownup literary seriousness to the marvellous enchantment of childhood. It’s a marriage, and a method, that would please Nabokov, for whom the ultimate aim of literature was a tingling up and down the spine: “It is no use reading a book at all if you do not read it with your back.”
New Yorker 3 November 2011