On Rereading

A while ago, a reader posted online that she’d finished her fourteenth read of one of my earlier novels. I offered a thank you and queried, idly, if that was the record.

Evidently not. People began outlining their reread statistics, including one where Tigana, published in 1990, had been reread every year since then. I was touched (how can a writer not be?) but a bit abashed and steered the discussion as best I could to rereading in general. A little later I threw out, ‘This is interesting. I may write something on the topic.’ And, of course, a clever person posted, ‘I’d reread that!’

Set-up man, that’s me. But the subject does interest. I have just reread Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for the first time since my teen years – and found it mesmerizing, brilliant, chilling. More so than I remember from decades ago. And with that book this seems right. It is a novella that feels as if it should register more deeply in later adulthood.

There’s an anxiety I feel when picking up a book I loved when young, preparing to read it again. I think it has to do with how we define ourselves, in part, by what we’ve loved. Books (not only books, of course) that reach deeply into us at twelve or seventeen or twenty-two shape the person we see ourselves as being. If, long afterwards, we reread them and they feel overwrought, banal, sentimental, shallow or, perhaps worst of all, just mediocre … does that force a shift in our self-definition? I am a person who spent decades loving a pretty weak piece of writing.

Conversely, if we reread a loved title and still love it, don’t we feel vindicated, validated in our youthful selves? I had good judgement, even as a teen (with the exception of that time in my senior year.)

Heraclitus, unsurprisingly, comes into play here. It can be said that just as we can’t enter the same river twice, we can’t read the same book twice … each reading is a new reading, because we are a different person. I get that, I think it is formally true, but I don’t think it is psychologically true. Those subsequent readings are filtered through earlier ones, through memories of who we were, sometimes even of where we were when we encountered the work (the classroom, bedroom, beach, the hostel in Rome with the late spring flowers on the window ledge).

Sometimes, rereading, we anticipate a passage to come, sometimes we find we have misremembered it. (Anna wasn’t saved as the train approached?) A reread comes layered in memory and personal history.

So I’m edgy when I pick up a book I remember adoring. Even with awareness of changes in myself, I find that I don’t want to have been wrong. I feel a deep relief when I still find a book powerful, even as I become fascinated by differences in my response to it. As a pre-teen, I actually ‘loved’ both Daisy in The Great Gatsby and Brett in The Sun Also Rises. I saw them uncritically, through the eyes of the men who loved them in the novels. Rereading in my fifties, I had startlingly different, cooler responses to both of them – while still finding the books superb. (Gatsby is still better, but the wine in the river in Sun Also Rises remains, as someone once wrote, the coldest wine in the history of literature.)

By contrast, I adored Rosemary Sutcliff’s young adult historicals when very young, she’s one of the greats of the field. I also remembered loving her adult Arthurian novel, Sword At Sunset. I picked up a new edition of the latter some years ago, plunged in happily … and was dismayed to find myself struggling. Reader, I gave up. And did so with regret and chagrin. There’s a risk in going back.

Some books, I have always believed, belong to the young. This isn’t to say if we first read The Lord of the Rings or To Kill a Mockingbird as an adult, we won’t admire or enjoy them, but I’ll suggest that for these, and many other titles, their power is immeasurably magnified if encountered early. They can become (and for many they are) lifelong ‘favorite books’, our answers to first date or cocktail party questions.

Some titles are almost inescapably of their period and place. Their impact is bound up with the mood of a time. Re-encountering them later makes us shake our heads in wonder and recollection (and maybe that smell we remember is marijuana not flowers on the window sill). Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Demian, and Siddhartha, Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, these are books locked into the college ambience of the later 60s and 70s, (when I encountered them) – and pretty much off-the-radar since, given how vital they once were. I have often joked – probably too often – that you couldn’t get a date with an English major if you couldn’t quote Hesse in adequately angst-laden tones.

Other books grow in scope as we grow and times change. We encounter them for the first time young and are dazzled or indifferent, then reread them and find immeasurably more (and vastly different) things in them. David Denby, the New Yorker’s film critic, wrote a book about going back to Columbia University in his forties to retake the Great Books course he’d taken as a teen. In one memorable chapter he discusses how he’d thought Oedipus Rex pretty good at eighteen, but found it shattering, harrowing, almost impossible to read as a grown man, husband, father. He developed a nervous, hacking cough re-encountering the play. The idea that everything one had could be taken away, utterly, was a profoundly destabilizing literary experience for him at that point in his own life. King Lear, I know, can have the same effect.

It isn’t a matter of saying these works are greater art, though those two plays are surely at the apex of art, and I might have loaded the deck by using them as examples here. But great art can include works that have their most extreme impact on us when we’re young. But there is also writing that needs us to have lived to respond to aspects of their resonance. It goes both ways.

My brother likes to quote an English professor of his, from long ago: ‘Every time I reread Shakespeare he seems to know everything that’s happened in my life since the last time I read him.’

I love that line, that profound compliment to a writer. But the flip side, which I’ll also offer as a profound compliment, might be to say, ‘Every time I reread Yeats, I seem to remember everything that’s happened in my life since the first time.’

It goes both ways.

© Guy Gavriel Kay


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