Re-reading

The lead review in the latest TLS is devoted to two books on re-reading, Jonathan Yardley’s Second Reading, a collection of essays published in the Washington Post, and Patricia Meyer Spacks’s, On Rereading, written when she retired from teaching. A You-tube site introduces Spacks with this paragraph:

After retiring from a lifetime of teaching literature, Patricia Meyer Spacks embarked on a year-long project of rereading dozens of novels: childhood favorites, fiction first encountered in young adulthood and never before revisited, books frequently reread, canonical works of literature she was supposed to have liked but didn’t, guilty pleasures (books she oughtn’t to have liked but did), and stories reread for fun vs. those read for the classroom. On Rereading records the sometimes surprising, always fascinating, results of her personal experiment.

The video includes conversations with editors at Harvard University Press.

Bharat Tandon, the TLS reviewer, comments on the range in Spacks’s style which, he says,

incarnates in words the meeting points she discovers between the different stages of herself; but it is to her credit that she remains carefully distanced from uncritical worship of childhood reading, of texts that have no capacity to grow along with their readers, as witnessed by her honest description of the double perspective that she records: “The sense of having it both ways, of preserving the joy that is the object of nostalgia while possessing new powers of understanding makes the rereading of treasures from long ago especially satisfying.”

The reference to books that do not “grow along with their readers” reminded me of Gregory the Great’s allegorical exegesis of Ezekiel’s vision of the “wheels within wheels” (Ez 1:15-21):

“And when the living creatures moved, the wheels went alongside them; and when the living creatures were raised from the earth, the wheels rose, too” (Ez 1:19-21).

The living creatures move when holy men recognize how they are to live morally. They are raised from the earth when they lift themselves in contemplation. And because to the degree that a holy person makes progress in Sacred Scripture, the same Sacred Scripture makes progress in him, it is rightly said, “And when the living creatures went, the wheels went alongside them; and when the living creatures were raised from the earth, the wheels rose at the same time.” For the divine Scriptures grow with the one reading them, and a person understands them more loftily the more loftily he devotes himself to them. The wheels are not raised if the living creatures are not raised, because unless the minds of readers make progress toward the heights, the Scriptures, not being understood, lie as if in the depths. If a word of Scripture seems flat to some reader and does not stir his mind and there is no spark of understanding in his thinking, the wheel does not move and remains on earth because the living creature is not raised from the earth. But if the living creature moves, that is, if he seeks how to live properly and by the progress of his heart finds how to make progress in good works, then the wheels move too because you will find as much of an advance in the Scriptures as you advance in yourself. And if the winged living creature suspends itself in contemplation, the wheels are lifted from the earth, because things in the Scriptures which beforehand you thought were said with some earthly meaning you now understand are not earthly. You recognize the words of Scripture to be heavenly if on fire by the grace of contemplation you lift yourself to heavenly things. The wondrous and ineffable power of the Scriptures is recognized when the mind of the reader is penetrated by love from above.

Tandon quotes from Spacks’s refusal of a dichotomy between “critical reading” and “reading for enjoyment”:

When I write about my own experience of books, though, I write necessarily as a reader of a certain kind. I am one who “takes a book apart”–a phrase often used by those who think of this activity as the antithesis of “just enjoying.” I think–I feel–I know that taking a book apart, making myself conscious of how the elements of its construction work with one another to generate emotional, moral, and intellectual effects, is itself a powerful mode of pleasure. The more I understand, the more I enjoy. The more questions I ask of myself and of the book, the more I can see; the more I see, the more I feel.

This reminded me of Bernard Lonergan’s critique of “the Principle of the Empty Head,” the idea that to avoid eisegesis, reading things into a text, and to assure objectivity in one’s interpretation, readers should rid their minds of all assumptions and preconceptions, and just “let the text speak.” On the contrary, he thought, the more you know, the more you can learn.

Tandon ends his review with this paragraph:

In the long term, neither the supposed fiat of academics and “literati”, not the consensus of non-professional readers, will, in isolation, define the lasting value of books; if rereading (Whether Spacks’s exhilarting meditations on pleasure or Yardley’s no-nonsense empiricism) teaches us anything, it is that the conjunctions between readerly and textual lives will always be unpredictable and promiscuous ones. “What id you make of that book?”, runs the conventional phrase. As we revisit the objects of our reading, like recognizable but weathered landmarks, there can be no full going back, because we are not exactly the same people we were; but the consolation of rereading is the knowledge that we are these different people in part because of what those books have made of us.

So, after all this, what has been your experience of rereading–both of books that meant something to you when younger and of books that weren’t all that significant on first reading but have become meaningful on a second reading? Which books hold up? Which don’t?

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