On Rereading

I hardly ever reread a book these days, but I have just finished Anne Tyler’s brilliant novel, Ladder of Years and frankly I could turn around and start it all over again. I first read the novel in 1995, on holiday in Brittany with Mr Litlove and our six-month old baby. Mr Litlove’s favourite game then was to put one of his dinky socks on top of his head and see how long it took him to a) realise and b) remove it (answer: not long, but with just enough hesitation for comedy). Oh how times have changed. I started the book in some trepidation, afraid that it wouldn’t live up to my memory, but it was even better. Now I wonder whether the lure of rereading isn’t actually quite dangerous – why wouldn’t I spend all my time choosing guaranteed pleasure over the potential disappointments and pitfalls of all those unread novels? Well, in part at least because I do possess a lot of unread novels and they represent the triumph of hope. But still, I see I’m reaching a stage where rereading holds a seductive promise.

I thought I’d dig out my old research notes on rereading to see if they could help me gain a bit more insight into its pleasures. Matei Calinescu in his book Rereading, says ‘there are texts that haunt us, that cannot or will not be forgotten, and there are texts that haunt other texts, in the sense that they appear in them as expected or unexpected visitors, and even, some might say, as phantoms or spectres.’ Whilst I was interested in the front end of that sentence, Calinescu is more concerned with the back end. He is mostly talking about what happens when we read experimental or innovative novels, particularly those based on crime fiction. When we read crime fiction, whether we’re aware of it or not, we are experiencing the pleasure of having our expectations met. It’s one of the more ‘rule-driven’ genres, with, for example, the detective as the master reader of clues and suspect’s stories, and the formulaic surprise denouement. Several postmodern authors had a lot of fun with parodies and pastiches of such formulas, and Calinescu is thinking about the sort of ‘rereading’ that goes on as the reader progresses through such a ‘rewrite’, using familiar expectations to both note the places where the narrative goes awry but also recognising what is at stake in such playful distortions.

You could probably apply this concept of rereading to all innovative fiction, which asks the reader to bear an orthodox narrative in mind in order to make sense of the unconventional one by understanding how far, and in what ways, it departs from the original. He’s suggesting that a different kind of attention is required from the reader. Rather than be strapped into the boxcar of your standard story which whisks you off as a pure passenger on a ride, the more experimental fiction requires a kind of textual orienteering, as you study maps of other novels in your head while figuring out where the one in your hands is taking you. It explains, if nothing else, why those innovative novels are a much slower, more careful reading experience: you need to read the ghost of the underlying original as well as the actual story in the present.

Such an activity is not so far removed from the rereading that critics and researchers do, when you study a story over and over. Just reading a novel asks you to succumb to it, to stop thinking about its artificial construction and simply lose yourself in a fictional fantasy. When you read for a second time in a more reflective, analytical way, you’re lifting the lid off the text to see how it works underneath. You want to have a good look at the structure and see why it does one thing and not another, how it makes one argument at the expense of a range of others. I think this is perhaps why for some readers, critical reading is anathema, as much the same thing happens when a story fails to enchant and you are just left staring at cardboard sets and 2-d characters. Disliking a book and analysing a book may fall just too close together for comfort for some people.

But what about those books that haunt us and refuse to be forgotten? The closest I could come to anything that struck home was in the distinction made by another critic, Josephine Hilgard between involvement and absorbtion. Now, you may not agree with these particular terms and definitions, but the idea is that ‘emotional involvement’ means pleasure and enjoyment and a vividly engrossing experience, but the reader is aware that they are reading a made-up story. ‘Absorbtion’ takes the immersion that one step further so that the reader ‘partakes in a reading that is equivalent in grace and creative effortlessness to artistic inspiration.’ Hilgard says this means we can speak of ‘inspired readers’ just as we might talk about inspired writers. I wonder whether this kind of rereading, when you love a story so much you can read it again and again until it is a part of your own world, is such an inspired act. The reader can almost live the story, as if dreaming a particularly splendid dream; they take possession of it in some ways.

Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years is a book I could read repeatedly because it is sort of perfect for me in every sentence. The story of a middle-aged wife and mother who just walks away from her family while they are on the beach and keeps going, eventually locating in a different town and starting her life afresh, has no places where I wish things were different, no dull parts or implausible bits. It feels perfectly whole and necessary and I can sense my own desire to be up close to that. The sheer rightness of it all is part of the thrill. Even though it is in many ways an ordinary story, not one with many layers of implicit meaning that I wouldn’t pick up on the first time through. No, the enchantment is for me about a vicarious sharing of the artistic inspiration that went into it, the sense of watching the story unfold without a mishap, so confident in it that I can lose myself to it. The door is open for me to experience this because the novel corresponds so well to my purely personal and subjective feelings about what’s right and real in fiction; it absorbs me completely. Which of course means that my classic reread would not necessarily be anyone else’s. I’m thinking now about which books I really could read over and over again – surely a short list?


35 thoughts on “On Rereading

  1. You may recall I embarked on a summer re-reading project, going back to some of the books I really can (and have!) read over and over again. I started with Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, an even on the fourth time through it did not disappoint.

    I re-read a lot, always have. One thing about getting older – you become farther removed from books you read in your youth, and thus the perspective changes enormously.

    Now I have to re-read Ladder of Years 😉

    • I do remember your summer project, and your reread of Crossing to Safety. I adored that book, and will undoubtedly return to it myself. I regularly reread golden age crime – once I’ve forgotten the denouement – but now I can see that rereading novels I remember fondly will make a welcome supplement. And particularly useful for getting me out of a reading slump. If you’re going to reread Ladder of Years, I can promise you a treat in store!

  2. I really loved Ladder of Years too. I think a re-read might be in order though I rarely re-read books because I’m a slow reader and think of all the new books on my list. For me absorption is a rare treat. I’m usually watching all the mechanics that go into making a book and can’t get away from it unless the writing is masterful, really top notch. I love that feeling.

    • Isn’t it a wonderful feeling? I’ve always been separated from it by a critical perspective (probably not too different from yours!). But I feel like I’m letting that go now, and much as I miss it, it will free me up for other experiences. So glad you are a Ladder of Years fan – it is a wonderful book.

  3. Lovely post! And I too absolutely love Ladder of Years and in fact reread it regularly, for the sheer satisfaction of it. I’m fascinated and somehow calmed by Tyler’s recurrent motif of people who think they can do better than the life they currently have but find out (usually in a kind of gentle, whimsical way) that they are better off right where they already are. That said, I do love the very idea of that little quiet room with nothing but a bed and a library book!

    • I thought this was one of your favourites! I like the way you describe that circular journey motif that happens in Tyler. It’s the only thing that bothers me as I worry its inherently conservative – but I like your explanation much better! But oh yes, the simplicity and purity of that room is wonderful.

  4. You might have a look at John Dewey’s Art as Experience, in which he argues that a truly “absorptive” reading is one that is also re-creating what the author “went through” in creating the work–not just the story but the “art” of the story as well. On Dewey’s account, the “immersive” reading is not a fully aware reading.

    • Dan that’s not a book I know so thank you for the recommendation. The theory seems close to Josephine Hilgard’s approach only it sounds like it has been more fully imagined and the implications pursued more rigorously. I’m most intrigued to read about it.

  5. Like you, I hardly ever reread books, but there are some that I have returned to already (Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time is one). I can see myself returning to others in the years to come. One of the first books that came to mind for me to reread is Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety–and I see in the comments that Becca feels the same way. (That is such a wonderful book!) I plan to reread Middlemarch in a few years because I think it will benefit from a second read. I am still working my way through Dante’s Divine Comedy, and I know I will return to that one again in the years to come.

    What a delightful post! I think I need to check out Ladder of Years now!

    • Ali, Laurie Colwin is definitely a writer I could reread. There’s something about her and Anne Tyler and the way they take seemingly ordinary domestic situations and add all sorts of depth and implications to them. Middlemarch is also a novel I’d like to read again – I first read it while I was expecting my son, so that’s a VERY long time ago. I’d love to know what you think of Ladder of Years. Do let me know when you get to it!

  6. I love the idea of inspired reading being itself an artistic act! I think I go through times in my life where I do lots of rereading of my favorite books and other times when I primarily want to read new things.

    The Anne Tyler book that I love to reread is Back When We Were Grown-ups.

    • I must admit I was drawn to that reading-as-art-form theory. I do think it can be that way, sometimes. I can also quite understand your choice of Back When We Were Grown-Ups. I loved that one, too and would happily read it again!

  7. I very seldom reread, time being so limited. But I have reread two novels several times: Les Miserables and To Kill A Mockingbird. As you say, I can “live in the story” and be “totally absorbed” by them. I have read several Dickens novels more than once, but none more than these two. God willing, I’ll have time to reread them again and again.

    • I hope you have the opportunity to read all of them many times. Les Miserables is quite a proposition to read through once, let alone more than once, but I love the fact that you have. My PhD student was a huge fan of that book and I’ll tell him about your rereading – he will be chuffed. Living in the story is exactly what I was talking about – so happy you understand.

  8. We had almost exactly this discussion in relation to crime novels last night at book group. We had been reading Kate Atkinson’s ‘Case Histories’ and, while it is not the sort of experimental novel you mention, it does work to a large extent by setting itself against the expectations of the police procedural. Those of us who are steeped in the genre had more to say about it than those who are not. This might also explain why I was so unhappy to find it shelved in my local library under Crime Fiction, because for me it is so much more.

    On the subject of ‘Absorption’ is this not what happens to children who become so engrossed in a fictional world that the characters become real to them? I’m not suggesting that this is a bad thing, although it may be something to grow, if not out of, then away from. Having said that, my mother once tentatively asked me if I did know that the characters in Harry Potter were not real:)

    • It’s interesting isn’t it, the mixed feelings we have about childhood experiences that spill over into the present. On the one hand, we live in a culture that encourages us to be more childish than ever before, not taking responsibility, trying to stay young for as long as possible, and so on, in ways that seem unhealthy. Yet some of that early experience of being in the ‘flow’ so naturally and easily seems like a longed for ideal no matter what age we reach. Very interesting to hear about your book club’s discussion. I see exactly what you mean about Kate Atkinson, who I do think of as a very literary author, disguised in a cloak of accessibility!

  9. I have only 20 or so books on my bookshelf. Some are still to be read, and some are waiting for rereading. I don’t keep books unless I know I will return to them, and often after I have reread them once I will pass them on. I have several favourite works of narrative non-fiction too, but here is my complete list of fiction that I have already reread but want to return to yet again –
    Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
    The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
    The Hunter by Julia Leigh
    The Parable of the Blind by Gert Hoffmann
    The Lover by Marguerite Duras
    plus Kafka and Beckett.
    Curiously not one of these works is by an English writer

    • Ooh so fascinating! I admit I am obsessed with my friend’s bookcases to a point that probably seems impolite at times. I am a big fan of Duras, Kafka and Beckett (Kafka in particular is part of my all-time great pantheon of Kafka, Colette, Rilke, Cather). Invisible Cities is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, and you have just bumped it up the list. The others are unknown to me but not for long – a little online checking out is clearly required here. I love the thought of a capsule book collection, though I know I couldn’t do it. Or perhaps my capsule just has to be measured in hundreds rather than tens…. I’m a huge fan of European literature, and lately of American too, so I can quite see how your top 20 might not include an English author.

  10. For me, initial readings are for story more than anything. Rereading gives me the chance to appreciate the nuances of character and the craft of the author.

    I agree with Becca that with age and experience our appreciation of novels does change. We are a different person when we revisit a book. I read ‘Madame Bovary’ fifteen years ago and found it hard to get past my dislike of Emma. Rereading it recently was a much more satisfying experience.

    I think there’s pleasure too in revisiting an old favourite. Like a child repeatedly listening to a favourite story book, we can savour our anticipation of Darcy’s proposal or the horror of Jane Eyre’s wedding day. Knowing what’s coming can heighten rather than diminish our enjoyment.

    • Yes, I think you’re perfectly right. Knowing what’s coming can be a huge pleasure (I love to rewatch films and favourite tv programs, and it’s far more enjoyable for me than watching them for the first time), as well as gaining a finer appreciation of the detail. The character of Emma is always the sticking point with my students, most of whom couldn’t abide her (the boys usually had far more sympathy than the girls). But I’m glad your more recent reading showed her in a better light. She behaves badly, I know, but her choices are all so awful that I can never really blame her.

  11. I reread quite often, and in fact just a few weeks ago finished Ladder of Years for the third or fourth time – a wonderfully satisfying book, every sentence and scene a pleasure.
    My memory is so wayward that it makes rereading strangely exciting. Unlike a goldfish, who I presume comes to the book afresh, I often remember the book clearly – but totally wrongly. What happens is that, during the first read, I form a conviction about how things should turn out – and this preference is frequently confounded, and I am surprised or disappointed. But somehow my preferred alternative ending persists in my memory more strongly than the “real” ending. On the second read I think I actually know the ending, and so am even more startled the second time round by how things turn out. (And yes, I do realise that those who know of this strong unconscious preference of mine for my own fantasy endings may legitimately wonder whether it is ever worth taking seriously my claims about real life events.)

    PS Sorry not to see you when we were in Cambridge recently, but Jasmine was very happy to have a chance to visit and to spend some time with you among those piles of books!

    • Oh Joanna, this is so funny and so intriguing! I can see that the next time we are together I’m going to have to sit you down and compare memories of events we’ve both witnessed that are at least a decade old! I also want to know how you alter the endings – are they happier? Sadder? So many questions! And it was a real pleasure to see Jasmine. She has such a perfect attitude towards books that she is welcome to drop by any time! 🙂

  12. I will post on rereading some day as well as I’m sort of puzzled by my own behaviour. I re-read rarely and if I do not necessarily the books I liked the most – with some exceptions – I’m often surprsied wehn people re-read for entertainment. I think I rather do it to have another look at the mechnaics.
    I’m very keen on reading Ladder of Years now and would like to see your list, maybe with inclusions of the reasons why you re-read them. I think I have as many reasons as individual titles.

    • I am quite keen to make a list myself, although I think it’s probably something to do with technical accomplishment that determines my choices. When a book is particularly satisfyingly put together I feel very drawn towards it. I’d be very interested to hear more about your own rereading approach, too, and to learn which books you’ve reread and why. I’d also love to know what you think of Ladder of Years, although I do wonder whether it helps to be a mother to read that one. The desire and the taboo involved in walking away from a family is a particular thing that might look all kinds of wrong from a different angle. But still, you’d be a good test case in that respect!

  13. I have several novels that I reread fairly regularly for the sheer pleasure that they give me, and of course, each time there is something new (structural, symbolic, even just a word or a forgotten scene). I enjoyed Ladder of Years very much, but won’t be able to reread it: loaned it out to someone, and then discovered that they had passed it along to someone else : (

    Your discussion of Josephine Hilgard–thank you for the introduction–reminds me of an essay that was required reading for a college class: “The Phenomenology of Reading” by Merleau-Ponty. She uses different terms, of course, but the point seems similar. Thank you.

    • ds, I am so sorry that your copy went walkabout – that is so frustrating. But I’m glad you have your cherished novels. Very few things in life give guaranteed pleasure. Naturally the wonderful world of books might be one of the exceptions. I hadn’t thought of Merleau-Ponty in years, though! So thank you for the reminder.

  14. Like Helen, above, I have an ideal memory for rereading. 🙂

    I’ve reread Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters numerous times. The first time through a story you are in thrall to the plot–what will happen next?

    In subsequent reads you can recognize the signposts of what’s to come, as you know the resolution(s); it’s easy to better appreciate structure and technique. Sometimes even when you have the ideal memory for re-reading, one that’s self-scrubbing …

    • Ha, a self-scrubbing memory, what a great term. And I agree it could make for very economical reading! I also agree that it’s the technical perfection of a work that makes for wonderful rereads. Watching those cogs move has a pleasure all of its own. I have a friend who is not a fan of Catcher in the Rye, but insists that everything else Salinger wrote is genius. I can see I will have to try him!

  15. This post is so rich and you’ve touched on so many points that I don’t know where to begin. For me, the first read is usually for the overall story. Any further reading is for deeper analysis or simply to savour the language and the characterization some more. But maybe allow me to digress a bit. In this past year after I’ve gotten used to audio books, I find myself rereading through listening to the book. That’s a wonderful way to experience it in a totally different frame of mind.

    • Arti, audio books (and some golden age crime) used to be the only things I did ‘reread’ over and over again. I enjoyed them more with each subsequent experience for some reason. But I haven’t read the book and listened to the audio book (oh well, apart from a couple of Agatha Christies which I listened to many years after reading). That’s an intriguing thought, and a very different experience I feel sure.

  16. I like the idea of an inspired reader because really, readers do a lot of work too when we read, so much so that we become partners with the writer in many ways. So why no talk about inspired readers? I bet once you start that list of books you could read over and over again it will turn out to be longer than you expect. I started one after finishing PMS’s book and stopped because it was getting long!

  17. I like to reread from time to time because I find it gives me so much insight into my self. The way I react to a book ten years after I’ve first read it is different (always) and doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t still love the book but I do find things about myself and the way I react to characters that tell me much about where I am in my life. The first time I met Rebecca I thought Maxim seemed dark and mysterious. In future rereads I found him annoying and weak. I still loved the book but reacted very differently to the characters.

  18. Pingback: Best Books of 2012 | Tales from the Reading Room

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