I’ve touched on the pleasures of rereading a couple of times before, notably when I was contemplating a mammoth weeding out of books prior to moving house. I trust it’s something all us bibliophiles do, a delight like that of listening again to a well-loved piece of music or taking a favourite walk for the umpteenth time. As with that walk, different perspectives can present themselves depending on changing seasons, or moods, or circumstances.
A recent article by Julian Barnes focused on how maturity often ensured that rereading a book after some time — or maybe even reading for the first time a work by an author you’d assiduously avoided reading in your youth — caused you to think of it rather differently, sometimes for the better.
Being young frequently involves the seeking out of novelty, of stimulation and so on, while older minds may well consider more, weighing things up in the light of experience. Human beings have the propensity (though they may not often use it) of retaining their youthful ways, of somehow staying young, sometimes because it’s in their nature and sometimes from a deliberate effort not to stultify. The best thing, of course, would be to retain the advantages of both youth and age in one’s approach to life, the universe … and literature.
I went through much of my youth and teens in a rather befuddled and bemused state. I suspect that a lot of it stemmed from being on the autism spectrum as much as being of that particular, and peculiar, age. One of things I stumbled into doing before the age of 16 was the study of dead languages: Ancient Greek and Latin. I failed an O level in the former and scraped a pass with the latter, heaven knows how. If the past is a foreign country (“they do things differently there,” opined the first-person narrator of Hartley’s The Go-Between) then I was the archetypal innocent abroad. What I do recall is some slight acquaintance with two war campaign classics, Caesar’s De Bello Gallico and Xenophon’s Anabasis.
Now, I neither have nor had the slightest interest in battles, nor, at that time, familiarity with more than the southwest corner of France, and still less — none in fact — of Mesopotamia. These battles were not only in the past (“old, unhappy, far-off things” I’d have thought, as Wordsworth might have put it) but also took place in foreign countries, fulfilling both of Hartley’s paradigms in one; and they certainly did things differently there. The study of these set texts was limited to extracts, with synopses of whatever action went on in between. I failed to gain insights into anything other than a very distant bird’s eye view of the overall narrative, and could never raise up any enthusiasm for the events depicted, especially after struggling through vocabulary, syntax, conjugations and so on.
Jump half a century: I’ve just completed a whole read of Xenophon’s narrative, translated as The Persian Expedition, and my older self has experienced both the shock of recognition and the dropping of scales from the eyes. Events in Europe and the Middle East — from the two Gulf Wars to the eruption of Daesh, the conflict in Syria and the refugee crisis — have heightened my appreciation of events in 401 BCE, which is when a bunch of around ten thousand Greek mercenaries invaded the region, marching through what is now Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Armenia before heading back towards the Mediterranean end of Turkey. Some of the parallels are enlightening, as are the differences, a few of which I may bring up in a future review.
It’s been a similar experience with many of my other rereads: fresh perspectives and fresh delights, not to forget appreciations and occasionally criticisms. It’s never ever been a waste of time. I agree with Barnes: rereading is definitely both a pleasure and a necessity of age. And I would in many cases emphasise the latter.