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Re-reading

The lead review in the latest TLS is devoted to two books on re-reading, Jonathan Yardleys Second Reading, a collection of essays published in the Washington Post, and Patricia Meyer Spackss, 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 videoincludes conversations with editors at Harvard University Press.Bharat Tandon, the TLS reviewer, comments on the range in Spackss 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 Greats allegorical exegesis of Ezekiels 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 Spackss 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 aparta phrase often used by those who think of this activity as the antithesis of just enjoying. I thinkI feelI 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 Lonergans critique of the Principle of the Empty Head, the idea that to avoid eisegesis, reading things into a text, and to assure objectivity in ones 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 Spackss exhilarting meditations on pleasure or Yardleys 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 werent all that significant on first reading but have become meaningful on a second reading? Which books hold up? Which dont?

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My grand-niece Louise is an avid reader. Last year I tracked down a copy of my favorite childhood book, "Alison Blair", and got it for her. Upon re-reading parts of it I was greatly disappointed to find I didn't like it at all. And neither did Louise. Sigh.Maybe I should go back and re-read Huckleberry Finn. Maybe I'd like it this time.

Joseph.The piece by Gregory is quite literally exquisite. Bet you knew that already.Book suggestions, particularly ones that seem to hold up under repeated reading? Oh boy! "Belief and Nonbelief" by Umberto Eco and Cardinal Martin, Twain's hilarious ramblings about Adam and Eve, "Modern Man in Search of A Soul" by C.J Jung, "The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener" by Martin Gardner, "A History of God" by Karen Armstrong and "The Invisible Wall" by Harry Bernstein. The last if only for the fact the author was somewhere in the general area of 96 years of age when he wrote it. In the afterword of the book he responds to the predicatable question of where he had been all those years. He responded he had always been around and wondered where they had been. Challenge that fellow at your own peril.

The children's books by Comtesse de Segur, were read by me with great pleasure as a young child and again with great pleasure as a parent. As a child I readily entered their world and made it mine without a second thought on how natural that seemed. As an adult I admired the liveliness of the portraits and the spirited, rich personality of the characters who, in my memory, were merely white or black, good or evil children in the stories. As a child I was fascinated by the concrete stories of children lost and found, abandoned and rescued, of death and of birth. As an adult I realized that the only vivid, realistic description I ever read of the last hours on earth of a sick child approaching death (probably from TB) came from one of those books, and I used memories from that book to figure out what to do when death came to my own family in real life. People say that Comtesse de Segur is moralistic and sadistic, not to mention all the political incorrectness due to having been written in the 19th century, but I still enjoy those books. Maupassant's short stories were quick, easy reads that made me cry as a teen, as I sentimentally sympathized with the purely fictional characters such as the woman in "Une vie". Now I read them slowly, savoring the perfect French. "Une vie" no longer makes me cry, but I can now recognize that it is not pure fiction, but that there are some lives that are just like the one portrayed in that short story, and it still gives me pause. The story of Hans Brinker, the little boy from Holland who saved his country for a deadly flood by blocking a leak all night with his finger, hand and arm, was just one among many that I liked as a child, but as a parent it was my favorite story, because it is the only more or less realistic story I know in which a little child saved an entire country from devastation, and because there is heroism without violence. It is a little jewel of a story.Anne Frank's Journal was a big hit with me as a teenager, but I am afraid that that one did not hold up. A re-reading a couple of years ago revealed its many imperfections that I had been oblivious to on first reading, so enthralled was I with the story.The TV series "Holocaust", that I saw as a teenager, was an earth-shattering event for me at the time that has shaped my view of WWII, probably for life. I saw it again a few years ago and realized that, actually, it's just a movie, no longer a world-changing viewing.The comic books series of Asterix and Obelix, with their treasures of hidden jokes, have become more and more enjoyable with time. On the other hand the Tintin series has lost much of its charm as I am more aware of the prejudices underlying many of the stories. The "Five" series by Enid Blyton, not only have lost all of their charm, but I can't even fathom why I ever liked them!The "Ecume des jours" by Boris Vian was attractive, funny and mysterious when I first read it. Upon rereading it, it still keeps its mystery (and is still attractive and funny). It is still beyond my grasp, but just as enjoyable as before, maybe more so because it is much more difficult now for books to make the cut. Then there is the Gospel of John, that used to be flat and meaningless, but is slowly improving with time. I would venture that that book holds up :)

Ann for Louise: I never get tired of "Just so stories", and I still sorta like "The secret garden", although when I reread it it was a little bit too sweet and unchallenging. I would also be curious to reread "Tom Brown's schooldays", that I just might still like; as a kid I was torn between Tom and Arthur, couldn't decide which one I liked best as a role model. The choices were not really compatible and it was a real quandary. Maybe "Kim" as well. Oh, and "The three musketeers" -- in a good translation -- I actually liked it much better reading it as an adult than as a kid, and the heroes, both in Kim and in the 3 Musketeers, have interesting characters that robustly promote lies, adultery, drunkenness, etc.; so that helps develop a healthy flexibility of values and prevents the black-and-white view of the world that is so dangerously attractive to kids and that many American youth have difficulty getting rid of.

Thanks, Claire. I loved the Secret Garden too. I'll check with her about the three musketeers. She's kind of a problem at this stage -- she's just 9, but reads at a higher level. She has started writing her a novel of her own :-) Alternate universe stuff. Hope that keeps her little mind busy for a while.

A book I just can't read: The Wind in the Willows. (I was reminded of this and felt guilty when I read something by Anthony Esolen praising it.) I tried about four times when I was a kid--and I read everything (including reader's digest condensed books, cover to cover).Well, almost everything. in general, I don't like fantasy. It makes me nervous. So no Lord of the Rings (still haven't read them). No Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe.

I marked the margins of one of my earliest anthologies of poetry to indicate pieces I particularly liked and was so embarrassed by them decades later that I got rid of the book. On the other hand, some poetry that was ho-hum when I had to read it for an English lit course has taken on life and power since. I think in particular of the metaphysical poets, although I always did like Donne. Dickens was my great discovery when I was in my '30's, even works that I had read before. Pickwick Papers still makes me laugh out loud. And just last year I even came to like and appreciate George Eliot, not appreciated when required reading in high school. And, of course, there are parts of the Bible that got only a passing attention decades ago now speak and comfort and judge and challenge like never before.Is it a possible definition of a "classic" to say that it is a work that grows with the reader?You know the old story: A to B: "I'm going to get you a book for Christmas." B''s reply: "Oh, don't bother. I've already got one." How odd to think that one has done with a literary or religious classic at one reading. "Want to go see the new Lear?" No, I've already seen it." "How about Handel's "Messiah." "Heard it already."

For a book to be worth re-reading, is it necessary that it be well written? I can only think of one example of a book that I read merely because of the plot and of the general ideas, but that I reread much later with renewed interest in spite of an indifferent style of writing: "Brave new world".

Spacks is an old favorite of mine from the days when I started out in Eighteenth-Century Studies. So sensible, thoughtful, readable and wise. I can appreciate what she says about the experience of teaching the same books 40 or 50 times. Fortunately, I have never been able to read some kinds of books without a pen or pencil in hand, so-- while I must have a dozen copies each of some Austen or Bronte novels-- the ones I cant do without are the ones I annotated personally while teaching over many years. Re-reading them now becomes a complicated but rewarding on-going dialogue with the author, with myself as reader over time, and of course, with so many bright and unpredictable student readers over the years. I have often wished those Norton Critical Editions had wider margins.There is a wonderful passage in Little Women where Laurie, the lonely boy next door, confesses that he used to watch the March girls at night through the lighted windows of their house, and enter into their lively family life as a fascinated invisible visitor. Though far from being a lonely child, I found the book to be something similar: a world different from my own which I could could enter, explore, and live in, in a way. I read it obsessively, and would go back to dip into favorite parts till I almost knew them by heart. Years later, when my literary interests had turned to historical childrens literature, I was asked to write an article on the illustration history of Little Women, and it was a fascinating opportunity to look at the way artists over time had read the book and provided imagetexts of it offering their own annotations to readers. Once you start looking at things that way, there is no end to it....

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.