On Rereading

“The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the reader always does.” Patricia Spacks

I am reading On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks. It is the first time I’ve read it, although I have reread the first chapter that sketches Spacks’ views on the value of rereading and the reasons that motivate her to devote a fair amount of time to rereading literary fiction.

She suggests we reread for enjoyment, a way to evoke memories, a reminder of forgotten truths, as well as a source of new ones. But we also reread, she says, to measure how we have changed or even if we have changed. “…but for most readers, rereading provides, in contrast, an experience of unexpected change.” She cites a passage from an essay on rereading by Vivian Gornick:

“When I read Colette in my twenties, I said to myself, That is exactly the way it is. Now I read her and I find myself thinking, How much smaller this all seems than it once did—cold, brilliant, limited—and silently I am saying to her, Why aren’t you making more sense of things?”

But for the most part Spacks suggests we reread fiction because we want to re-experience the pleasure we found when we first read a book, the enjoyment that can arise from an engaging story, stimulating truth or fine writing.

The bulk of her text describes the various encounters she has had rereading books. She treats the books she read as a child, her favorite Jane Austen, those she read in the 1950s, 1960s, and the 1970s, the books she read as a professional teacher and critic, those she ought to have liked, but didn’t and the ones she has read as a member of a book group.

In the final chapter, Coda, she reviews what she has learned from all the books she’s reread. She wonders what the era of electronic books will do to reading and the experience of rereading and confesses she can’t begin to imagine what that will be.

At the same time she realizes how much she has “been shaped—personality, sensitivities, convictions—by reading.” She also comes to better understand how the extent to which her values and attitudes have changed over the years.

“If Herzog has meanings that I was earlier unable to detect; if The Golden Notebook, with large pretensions, now seems relatively trivial in import; if the facts of a book’s nature can shift in such ways, value judgments, too must be less stable than they appear.”

Most of the rereading I do is simply because I’ve forgotten so much, if not all, of what the book was about, why I liked it, and why it is (usually) still on my shelf. I reread because I forget so much. And I don’t do a great deal of rereading, since I really only started reading seriously relatively late in life and have a lot catching up to do.

And then I think about those truly special books I’ve read. These are books I don’t forget. And, unlike Spacks, I know I don’t want to reread them again. I don’t want to do anything to alter the memory that I have of those days, the people in the book, their story and the great writing. None of it can ever be repeated. They were the best and I want to keep it just that way.

I’d rather not experience Gornick’s melancholy lament: “I want the reading of Colette to be the same as it once was, but it is not. Yet I am wrenched by the beauty of that which no longer feels large, and can never feel large again.”

Here is a brief video of Spacks talking about her book:

Patricia Meyer Spacks, ON REREADING from Harvard University Press on Vimeo.