Years ago, when I was an under-aspiring and entirely unlikely college English professor in America, there used to be an insider joke I shared with myself around the department Xerox machine, and that always sent me away entertained. Whenever any one of us esteemed faculty members would ask another if he’d read such-and-such a book—let’s say it was Daniel Deronda (unopened by me to this day)—one’s rumpled, tweedy, pipe-clenching colleague would go all evil-eyed and twitchy and found-out-looking, and with an airy, half-dismissive, half-stricken smile, answer: “Oh, yes. Of course. You know I really must reread that.” And off to class Professor Dottle would go, coat-tails a-waggle, crepe soles barking, old exam papers and curriculae vitae fluttering from his book satchel.
Everyone, by this measure, had already read everything at least once, and life’s jolly onward journey was understood to be nothing more than revisiting these worn old faves, savouring prior underlinings, and—because we only read great books—having our important judgments burnished and re-certified by the deeper delve.
Oh, I know there are people who’ve read everything. Really everything. When I unaccountably taught at Harvard, sixteen years ago, I regularly lunched with a man named Walter Jackson Bate, who by then was elderly, retired, and made extremely weary by his young literary-theorist colleagues—weary enough that having soup ‘n sandwich with an unknown novelist from New Orleans seemed not that bad an idea. Jack Bate had been the teacher of a teacher of mine, which was how and why I’d worked up the nerve to introduce myself. He was also the great biographer of Keats and Samuel Johnson and Coleridge, and the brains behind plenty of other recondite books. If knowing a lot makes you smart, he was probably the smartest man I ever met.
Jack Bate had read everything. And occasionally, when we were joined for lunch by one of his emeritus colleagues, they would talk about it. About everything—at least everything where books were concerned. Norse mythology. Sanskrit poetics. The life of every small and large post-Raphaelite poet who ever drew breath. About hermeneutics. About Icelandic sagas. About Steinbeck. About Gainsborough. About theories of the sublime. About Kant, Li Po, Chaucer. They’d quote—always apposite, always spot-on (I thought so, anyway)—Dante, Shakespeare, the Venerable Bede, Congreve, Raymond Chandler, Joel Chandler Harris, Langston Hughes, Richard Hughes, Spenser, Milton, Mrs. Gaskell, Mrs. Woolf, La Rouchefoucauld, Merleau-Ponty,Ortega y Gasset, Burke, Locke, Ibsen, Cotton Mather, Jerry Mathers, Goethe, Roethke, Racine, Rimbaud and whoever wrote Beowulf. Everything was their specialty. And I promise you it was never boring for one second to hear what they said. It was great, and great just to be there—like having my birthday every day. It pleased me no end that here were these old boys who’d done the job right (unlike how I and my previous poky colleagues had done it), and were happy to toodle along the way I just said—coursing around their own fertile brains as they spooned up their chicken-noodle soup, and feeling the fond caress of literature, which had held them fast all those years. If Jack Bate said he’d reread something—Daniel Deronda—he’d goddamn well reread it.
If we’ve ever read any books at all, we’d probably like to read at least a few of them again. We were certainly too young to get most of the jokes in Ulysses the first time—if we made it through. And not until you’ve read The Waste Land twenty or thirty times (it’s better read out loud), does it become just like a man talking to you—and making sense. Plus, since we’ve been around more now, we’re less gullible, more seasoned, less likely to be overpowered by showy virtuosity. Therefore, the brilliant-but-murky parts won’t seem as murky, and there’ll be fewer of them, so more of the best parts can finally make it into our brains.
The standard claim to gravitas by a certain kind of chin-pulling, Middle-western American university graduate is that he or she reads The Great Gatsby every year. The reason being that as these readers move steadily on from one mystifying life-phase to another, Fitzgerald’s sleek, seemingly straightforward little tragedy of Nick and Daisy and the enigmatic Gatz, all lethally frolicking around in big Long Island houses and swimming pools and speeding cars, just keeps on turning up wonders which prior readings gave few hints of.
The entire idea of rereading implies just such a likeable and progressive assumption about life, one that’s meant to keep us interested in living it: namely, that as you get further along, you find out more valuable stuff; familiarity doesn’t always give way to dreary staleness, but often in fact to celestial understandings; that life and literature both are layered affairs you can work down through; and that as Henry Moore once optimistically observed, we should never think of a surface except as the extension of a volume. In other words, more is better.
Mostly we don’t have the time to reread books, of course. I know I don’t. Usually only teachers do, and then only because they have to teach them to make a living. But most of us aren’t teachers. And many of us, like me, are slow readers who spend our days scratching our heads and furrowing our brows at the mirage of some desired horizon line we wonder how we’ll ever reach. Beyond that, rereading’s actually an expensive and baulky luxury, since our roads are already lined with all those books we haven’t even read the first time and that have a first claim on us if we could ever get to them. A Man Without Qualities. The Good Soldier Svejk. Under the Volcano. And then there’s all of Henry James—books you need to be older, more patient, perhaps smarter to read. We’re all eagerly waiting for that day.
Also, rereading requires a kind of confiding, suspension-of-familiarity (assuming we don’t find we hate the book we’re rereading and never want to open it again). To read a good book twice—even if our hearts still stir and swell at the prospect—we still have to re-subject ourselves to the novelist’s now-transparent inaugural shenanigans, designed not for us rereaders but for all those fickle first-time readers who’re forever threatening to put the book down if it doesn’t “grab them.” “Okay.We get it, we get it. It’s India!” we rereaders shout out (silently) at poor Forster. “Just get us to the Marabar Caves part.” And of course there are all the things we never liked in Moby Dick to begin with—even though we loved the book “as a whole.” All that whaling stuff; and the extracts. The cetology. It can all seem tedious ritual on subsequent exposure—like the begats in the Lord’s own novel. Couldn’t we, we wonder, just skip these and get along to Revelations?
I guess the answer’s no, if we’re really rereading and not just dipping in, having a sniff. Our recalled affection for a book is, after all, always woven into how we entertain and balance the best parts with the less artful passages or the wooden infrastructural bits the novelist couldn’t bear to takeout. Novels are forgiving forms: good writing over here often forgives less good writing over there, so that the whole mayprosper. Rereading all of a novel sometimes invites us to be more forgiving ourselves.
The point here (unsurprisingly) is that rereading a treasured and well-used book is a very different enterprise from reading a book the first time. It’s not that you don’t enter the same river twice. You actually do. It’s just not the same you who does the entering. By the time you get to the second go-round, you probably know—and know more about—what you don’t know, and are possibly more comfortable with that, at least in theory. And you come to a book the second or third time with a different hunger, a more settled sense about how far off the previously-mentioned great horizon really is for you, and what you do and don’t have time for, and what you might reasonably hope to gain from a later look. Every time I open a book for the first time I feel I’m taking a risk. It’s part of the great excitement of reading. It’s like standing in the street and watching a glistening, sequined tightrope walker traverse the empty space between tall buildings. If he falls, I’m implicated because I’m watching. Though maybe he won’t, and I’ll be implicated in a triumph.
But with rereading, less is thrillingly at risk—though it can still be thrilling. Everything just seems to happen on solider ground—not high up. In that sense, rereading is more like what we originally meant by reading—an achieved intimacy, a dappled discernment, the pleasures of volition, of surrendering, of time spent lavishly, the chance of glimpsing (but not quite possessing) the heart of something grand and beautiful we might’ve believed we already knew well enough.