On re-reading

Why re-read? Why, when there are so many books out there, would anyone want to go through what they already know? Is there not something timid and unadventurous about sticking to what one knows rather than exploring what is new? Does this not prevent one from widening one’s horizons? The very sound of the word “re-read” has about it a stuttering sense of repetition, of redundancy.

And yet, some of the most enthralling literary experiences I have had of late have been from re-readings. I don’t mean the “comfort re-reads” – Treasure Island, the Sherlock Holmes stories, the ghost stories of M. R. James – all those wonderful fictional worlds I enjoy revisiting because they are so enticing in their different ways. It’s not that revisiting these works give me new insights into them: but re-reading these works provides the sort of pleasure we get when we hear again our favourite tunes.

But there is another kind of book that demands re-reading – books where a single reading is no more than dipping one’s toes into the water. These are works where a mere view of the surface is not sufficient, given that so much of its substance lies hidden deep below. These are works not to be read once and put aside, but, rather, to be constantly revisited, to be lived with.

Admittedly, such books are exceptions rather than the rule: but there are more than enough of such books to last a lifetime. Indeed, there are so many such books, that choices must be made: just as one cannot read everything that is worth reading, neither can one live with everything that is worth living with. But still, to get to know a few great works well seems to me, on balance, time better spent than racing through as many different works as one can in search of ever-new experiences.

In the last few weeks of last year, I read The Brothers Karamazov for the third time. That in itself is rather strange, as I am by no means a fully paid up Dostoyevskian: Dostoyevsky troubles me for a variety of reasons – but then again, one may expect serious literature to be troubling. Now, I want to embark on another major re-read of another vast, visionary work that is deeply flawed and deeply troubling: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. I last read it, I think, some thirty years ago, and, while I sensed its power, I don’t think I took in much more than what I saw on the surface. Now, I think, it is high time for me too dive in, to look, as Melville himself did, beyond that surface. For if what I sensed so vaguely on my first reading is correct, this is another of those books that needs to be lived with: a mere single reading cannot be anywhere near sufficient.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Erika W. on January 9, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    This is so timely. I have just finished re-reading Winifred Holtby’s “South Riding”, first discovered in my teens, and am amazed at the talent and range of this novel. I am now looking for more books with which I think I am familiar but which I read years and years ago and have mostly forgotten.

    Recently I re-read “Mansfield Park” in preparation for “Murder at Mansfield Park”. I found more to enjoy in the Austen than I had expected to–she is not a favorite author of mine. As for “Murder at Mansfield park” At first I didn’t know what to make of it but then decided that it is a literary exercise. If you change the emotional and physical circumstances of well-known characters how would they behave? This being so the book does an admirable job although I am not recommending it to anyone. It is an oddity, not much more.

    I have always been a happy re-reader. My own books are witness to this, including many nearly-worn out Victorian children’s books. My husband’s library on the other hand is collected in a very different way–books recommended by authors he admires are bought and they lead to others and so on and so on. I think of it as a lucky dip but he would call it a voyage of discovery. When we married over 30 years ago we had the intention of reading each other’s favorite books; it hasn’t happened. Our tastes are entirely different.

    Reply

    • Hello Erika, my wife’s library and mine are also very different. my main interests tend towards novels, plays, poetry, whereas my wife prefers history – especially ancient & medievam history. A few years ago, she did read “Don Quixote” and “War and Peace”, and then declared that she didn’t need to read any more novels, now that she had read the best! I still haven’t managed to persuade her to read “Ulysses” or “Bleak house” – but then again, i haven’t got round to reading Steven Runciman’s “History of the Crusades” either, although I know I should.

      But may I take this opportunity to wish you a Happy New Year.

      Allthe best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  2. Posted by Erika W. on January 10, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    Well, well, I have Runciman’s 3 volumes on my shelves, kept with quite a bit of medieval history from my university days when I was stuck (it was an act of sadism in an all male department) with teaching a seminar on medieval warfare which was startlingly enjoyable.

    Your interests tending to fiction, among other subjects, If you don’t know them I recommend to you Zoe Oldenburg’s on the Crusades, especially “The Cornerstone”, “The World is not enough” and “The heirs of the Kingdom”. They are extraordinary novels and her non-fiction is equally good. Also, almost all I know about the fearful Albigensian Crusade I learned from her. She seems to have fallen by the wayside as a writer which saddens me.

    I wish you a very good New Year also.
    Erika W.

    Reply

    • My wife is actually from Toulouse – right in the middle of Cathar country – and is particularly interested in the Albigensian Crusade. She is a very keen reader of Zoe Oldenbourg.

      South-West France is a very interestinga and beautiful part of the world to visit. Cathar castles, perched improbably atop mountains, are incredibly spectacular; and Albi Cathedral is the least cathedral-looking cathedral I have seen: it looks more like a fortress – and that, I assume, was the intention.

      It has always struck me that even while French soldiers were committing unspeakable atrocities in suppressing the Albigensian heresy, only a few hundred miles further north, French architects and builders were building Chartres Cathedral, one of the greatest glories of human civilisation. There really is no end to human complexity, is there?

      Reply

  3. I love re-reading. As you say, with some books, it’s astonishing how much more there is to discover with each re-read – layers within layers within layers – sometimes those depths truly are inexhaustible, and can feed a constant searching into the text’s meaning, always delivering fresh angles and insights. As we grow, we stretch our wings wider within the ideas those great books explore, and find more and more that chimes with experience. I agree with you Himadri – far from re-reading being a limiting exercise, it’s what takes us further into understanding, and towards all the possible enrichment held within a literary work. For me, not re-reading would feel like putting limits around myself…

    Ah… Moby-Dick! What a vast, reaching, amazing work! As deep as the oceans it portrays….reaching out to the most fundamental, unfathomable mysteries of life, pushing boundaries within theme and structure; stretching to the most vast concerns within its very fabric and intention. Like you, it’s years and years since I last read it (back in my student days). One of my English Literature professors rated it as the greatest novel ever written in the English language! I was lucky enough to be in his tutorial group – and those Moby-Dick tutorials were amazing – the prof’s insights were true gold. I remember him once starting a lecture with a booming “Call me Ishmael!” his eyes glittering with relish. Instantly, the packed, chattering lecture theatre plunged into mesmerised silence, and throughout the lecture, we were held completely transfixed by his passion for the work – and all the depths he opened up for us in Melville’s words, and within the novel’s structure and form. Ah – those were the days…!

    I re-read Moby-Dick’s first few paragraphs not that long ago – and was dazzled by the wonderful prose that opens the novel. I think you’re in for a re-reading treat, Himadri – and I look forward to reading your insights as you journey through it again…

    Happy re-reading!

    Melanie

    Reply

  4. Posted by alan on January 13, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    Some things bear re-reading – Richmal Cropton’s ‘Just William’ surprised me in that way. It seemed to my adult mind more directed at mothers rather than children. Other things do not survive well at all.
    I wish you well with Moby Dick. “I think I see his impious end; but feel that I must help him to it.”

    Reply

  5. Couldn’t agree more! There are many books that merit a reread for all sorts of reasons. I have several which I revisit once a year or so, namely Goodbye to All That (Graves), Persuasion (Austen) and Strange Meeting (Hill), which I consider to be the finest book about the First War (others can dispute this with me!). A reread often provides new insights into a familiar book, or helps highlight aspects of plot or construction that one may have missed on first reading. Sometimes one is enable to fully appreciate the writer’s craft on a second or third reading….

    Reply

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