Rereading revisited

bookshop
A corner of a secondhand bookshop in Brecon, Powys

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.

reading

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.

rereading

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.

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17 thoughts on “Rereading revisited

  1. I’m with the point about rereading in maturity…I’ve read some different books when I’ve come back to one or two! And that image of the second-hand bookshop made me very nostalgic, no such things round here…is the one in Brecon still there?

    1. That Brecon bookshop was still there a month or so ago, Sue, so worry ye not! As for rereading, you’ll have gathered I’m a great fan because in the majority of cases it’s a new experience; and when it’s not it’s very likely to be akin to getting into a warm bath rather than a cold shower! (Though even this last is invigorating. :))

  2. I totally agree re the age thing, having myself re-read some books lately where I have benefited from a long gap in time and a greater number of years under my belt. You mention walking as well and though my appreciation of walking may now be different to that which I enjoyed when young, with each time I walk a familiar route now, I find I learn something new. What that “something new” may be is perhaps a mark of my accumulation of years – certainly my perception and understanding has matured with age.

    1. I note that on your photoblog you often record the reverse journey you make, Alastair, which offers a completely different impression to the extent that it’s like a new walk; something we two often find, especially when making a there-and-back-again trek as opposed to a circular walk. A reread can be like that — one might see things from a different character’s point of view, or see how changing weather or seasons — the old ‘pathetic fallacy’ — parallel the protagonist’s ‘journey’.

      1. From a visual artist point of view I try to be aware of familiar things as fresh as much as possible. Tricks like walking in the reverse direction can help but awareness of the details of an environment is important. With reading I tend to remember the essence of a book rather than the details so it is the memory of that essence that I compare on a second reading but I think my perceived essence is quite detailed. That’s what makes the re-reading so interesting for me.

  3. I agree with your points Chris. May I add that often the during the first read our brains are too busy trying to form mental pictures of the words that we miss many of their meanings. The second time around our minds can take in more because our brains are not multi-tasking. To use your walking metaphor, the first time around we are busy trying to navigate and find our way to the end of the path. The next time we take the path we have more time to look around and appreciate the scenery.

    On the flip side there are times when a second read, especially when we have matured, makes us realize just how much we have changed. I just recently tried to re-read a Stephen King book. Turns out the younger Sari loved him, while the older Sari does not find much value in his work. It saddened me to find that an author I once adored now bores me. So much for him!

    1. Yes! All you say about the brain’s workings is true, Sari; and I can add that our sense of time in the story often expands or contracts in a reread.

      As for disappointments, I do try to look for positives in a reread, even when my estimation of the author has to be revised — I nearly always find something worthy of note which I missed first or even second time round.

  4. Oh my…your Xenophon experience reminds me of my college experience with the Aeneid. I have often thought of going back to it, in English this time, since the translation of which I struggled through to the extent I only got bits and pieces of the actual story.

    I wonder what I would see in the contemporary world through it? I believe I will put it on the calendar for next year.

    I do have some favorites that I reread, especially Jane Eyre. I think I have read it four times. I remember my second read and was shocked to find how many passages were about ‘the weather’ that I hadn’t remembered. I may have skipped those parts as boring when an adolescent, but as an adult they drew me…so descriptive!

    1. Your mention of Jane Eyre surprises reminds me of my third read of LOTR in which I found I had no previous recollection of the Tom Bombadil and Goldberry episode — Frodo’s whole encounter with them had fallen into a mental crevasse — possibly down to that same adolescent habit of skipping obscure or boring bits in a narrative!

      I too ‘did’ bits of the Aeneid in Latin lessons, tedious to my teenage mind but ultimately helpful when studying Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at university. Yes, I ought to revisit in translation too! 🙂

  5. Lynn Love

    Haven’t reread anything in ages as I have a TBR pile to my hip I keep trying to whittle away at. But you’re right – rereading a much loved novel is a joy, like snuggling into warm sheets on a chill day. Might reread Christmas Carol again – almost irresistable as Christmas beckons

    1. I’m going to have just one reading challenge next year and that’s to reduce my Mount TBR — sadly a lot higher than my hip! Good luck with yours, Lynn!

      As for Christmas reading, it seems a bit early still to me, but I’ll have a think …

      1. I used to reread Christmas Carol every year, but the shop gets so busy I’m shattered and feeling distinctly anti-Christmas as the day itself creeps closer. Might try it this year, see if Charlie D can raise the Spirit of Christmas in me

  6. I was just saying to someone the other day that when I read Anna Karenina as a student I was interested in Anna and not at all in Levin. When I reread it ten years later I was much more interested in Levin and Dolly. And I’ve recently seen a new version of Uncle Vanya that makes me remember how ossified my view of it was when I read it as a student, frozen into respect by the fact that I had learned Chekhov was a great, but not really able to get it on a personal level. And having gone back to Greek and Latin in the last few years, the same experience- real people speaking to me.

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