I revisit the books I love regularly; re-reading books, like re-watching movies and television shows, helps me appreciate the style and structure more than I could upon first re-read, when the plot drives my impression.
Starting a few months ago, I began writing reviews of the books I read. (This review of Station Eleven is a good place to start, if you’re interested in checking them out.) Those reviews are mostly based on a single read of the text; I wonder how they would change if I were to write them again, after reading each book for a second or third time.
I read Reading Is Forgetting in the New York Review of Books three times. My first read-through was to grasp the overall message of the article; the second and third readings were more revealing of how Tim Parks structured his essay and of his careful choice of language. He captured, quite well, this dichotomy of wanting to be wowed by the novelty of a book while also needing to explore it in depth in order to fully understand its impact:
“When we read a book for the first time,” Nabokov complains, “the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation.”
Our reactions to a book on first reading are irrelevant, except in so far as they do or don’t encourage us to go back to the beginning and start again.
One has to wonder about Nabokov’s enthusiasm for rereading. Is it really a gradual and always positive accumulation of greater and greater control and retention, or is it rather a precarious process in which each new engagement with the text cancels and alters earlier ones? I will never recover my first excitement on reading, say, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or Browning’s Men and Women, or Beckett’s Molloy. Often, I have a sense of disappointment when I reread: Graham Greene, E. M. Forster, Calvino, Antonio Tabucchi, do not seem as exhilarating now as when I first tackled them. But why should that diminish the pleasure I once experienced? Why should I not rejoice that I am enjoying a new book today, rather than worry what the verdict of some future rereading might be? The purpose of reading is not to pass some final judgement on the text, but to engage with what it has to offer to me now.
I didn’t notice what Mr. Parks was really doing in this article until I read it for the third time: couched in this piece about re-reading was a meditation on memory, on remembrance, on experience. Sure, he was talking about reading books over and over, but he was also questioning the very human tendency to re-live the past, to let it get in the way of living the now:
We do not possess the past, even that of a few moments ago, and this is hardly a cause for regret, since to do so would severely obstruct our experience of the present.
Sometimes, I revisit memories, good and bad—it is perhaps too easy to get lost in the “remember whens” and “what ifs” of the past—but those memories change and morph as time passes. Every remembrance of an event gone by allows me to tell myself a new story about what happened and how it has shaped who I am.
Sometimes, I read a book again, and again, and again. The text is the same every time, but the stories I absorb are different, because I am different.
Sometimes, because I am different, one read is enough.