“Books help to constitute our identity” – Patricia Meyer Spacks
My tenth birthday party should have involved cake, streamers, party friends, dress-ups and games. Yet, to my guests’ dismay, I spent much of the party ensconced in re-acquainting myself with – and pressing upon my friends – the short stories in several editions of the British schoolgirl comic Mandy Girls Own Annuals. Never mind that I had read them many times before; here was an opportunity to re-read something that gave me pleasure, and a possibility of conferring that small pleasure on others.
The anecdote probably says more about my social obtuseness than it does my reading habits, yet it surprises me to learn that the practice of re-reading fiction – specifically novels -is not something everyone enjoys. I have friends who acquire fresh reading material on a regular basis yet aren’t interested in re-visiting a book two, three or several times. One friend – a professional journalist turned fiction writer – is amazed that I routinely re-read a collection of novels, some of which are on an almost yearly rotational system.
My habits are not without their dangers: I long ago lost the front cover of Richard Llewllyn’s How Green Was My Valley when I rolled on it in my sleep, and the entire bottom half of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye is warped and crinkled like a tide-marked shore from an unfortunate bathtub incident. Jane Eyre has cryptic little hieroglyphics in its margins in two differently coloured inks, and I realise they are chronographic, made (black pen) during my undergraduate degree in Victorian ‘literature over 20 years ago, and (blue pen), making notes before a ‘bring your favourite novel’ book party about 15 years ago. I have of course read it several times more since then, and can’t imagine not reading it again sometime this year.
I recently thrilled to read something of the same sentiment in Patricia Meyer Spacks’ ‘On Rereading’ ; this eminent professor of literature chattily expounds on her re-readings and varied personal interpretations of favourite books she’d read at different stages of her life, for study or pleasure purposes (eg Alice in Wonderland, The Catcher in the Rye, Middlemarch etc). Her enthusiasm and acceptance of the place for re-reading made me consider how and why I approach my own reconnaissance with certain books.
The very act of re-reading books might seem like a restrictive practice to those who prefer to consume seasonal menus of new works. Does reading repeatedly mean reading narrowly? (This is unproven in my case, as my Frequent Flyers feature a bizarre lineup from Cormac McCarthy to Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton to Arundhati Roy, William Thackeray to Jane Smiley). Or is it a sign of dissociative reading, the literary equivalent of mindless comfort eating? I remember how discouraged I was as a University literature student in literary theory, warned piously of the dangers of a naïve and uncritical reading, lest we fall into complicity with the text’s agenda and therefore unwittingly perpetuate some neo-colonialist perspective, some patriarchal system. Who dares to read Jane Eyre as anything other than a feminist manifesto?
While it’s possible the physical act of re-reading a text may originally spring from the comfort of an acquired taste or the vicarious memory of a certain moment, it promotes engaged and deep reading, fostering the sort of time and attention that can lead to various interpretative stances: re-iterative, creative, alternative, reflective, and yes, even resistant. This is the sort of thinking we applaud in the contemporary study of English literature. So if the hallmark of this thinking is a person’s immersion in a text, then it may logically raise the question of how learners and teachers can value and make space for ‘deep reading’ in the English curriculum. It’s the very place where we’d expect engaged reading to be encouraged or modelled (with the exception of library programs), yet reading programs and dedicated time on texts of both student choice and teacher selection are no longer guaranteed a privileged place in the schedule. And even more depressingly (if one is a voracious reader), the place for ‘pleasure reading’ – students selecting, reading, discussing and re-reading – is slim in the time-poor classroom, driven as we are by ”purposeful” reading. As if purpose and pleasure are doomed to be mutually exclusive.
Lamenting time lost for ”slow reading” in a literary diet that privileges purpose and utility doesn’t make me a ‘cultural heritage dinosaur’. I simply wish more time were devoted to learning how to have meaningful discussion about our reading loves and hates, what reactions are evoked and how, and to what purpose. Just as I hold important my own reactions to certain books, I am interested in knowing what students feel about books, and even more importantly, what they understand about their interpretative stance. While the idea of literature as ‘cultural artifacts’ (ref Brian Moon) attracts me, it’s not the historical, inquiry-driven archeological dig involved – dusting off layers of accumulated dirt, examining it at arm’s length – that excites me as a reader. I can’t say I ever set out to read a novel to become a ‘critically aware and powerful consumer and producer of texts’. Maybe this is why reader-response approaches, combined with such critical awareness and an attention to form, seems to me to answer the ‘why?’ question of literary learning. The challenge is becoming a critical consumer without dulling the experience that comes from reading about human experiences, the very stuff of literature and – at some level – surely the spark for conversations about those human experiences that are shared or made to be exclusive.
Even learned literature professors like Spack recognises this and devote time to reclaim reading as a pleasure/visceral experience, made sensible through critical thinking. She reminds us that – regardless of how we read -we ultimately read to feel alive, and we learn to pay attention to what we feel, and why we feel it. Then we can ask ourselves what we are going to do with this knowledge.
In my case, re-reading is less a ritual of the converted than it is the shifting mystery of the pilgrimage. I offer in abashed proof the many books on my library shelf – more than I would care to admit – that now seem destined to be frozen in Reading Space and Time. They are the ones I completed, found profoundly moving, would like to claim I love, but towards which I have developed a deep and often inexplicable ambivalence – or even dread. They are the ones I open with determination to again experience, only to find myself stalled by some deep reluctance. Despite four attempts, I can no longer finish Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I suspect the story’s irony seems clearer and more painful now. Similarly, Sonya Hartnett’s A Boy’s Life is more disturbingly insightful than I can bear, those dark and deft touches spring from such deceptively gentle writing.
When I understand the why of this, then perhaps I might dare enter the cave – ominously like Jane’s Red Room – more easily.