The pleasure of returning to novels

I’ve spent the last month rereading most of Irvine Welsh’s novels. In the late summer I read Jonathan Franzen’s novels again, after his most recent book reminded me of my love for his work. I feel a vague sense of guilt when I read books again. In part it’s awareness that the constraints of the lifespan mean I’m likely to read a couple of thousands books in my remaining years. Is it not a waste to therefore read something again when there’s so much of value which I haven’t read? To reread carries a vague sense of laziness and self-indulgence which I don’t reflectively endorse but which I struggle to dismiss nonetheless. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs, provides a wonderful rejoinder to this stark and puritanical impulse:

The book that simply demands to be read, for no good reason, is asking us to change our lives by putting aside what we usually think of as good reasons. It’s asking us to stop calculating. It’s asking us to do something for the plain old delight and interest of it, not because we can justify its place on the mental spreadsheet or accounting ledger (like the one Benjamin Franklin kept) by which we tote up the value of our actions.

Pg 16

The poet Randall Jarrell argues that we should read at whim. It’s a case of loving novels for their own qualities rather than the edification which we hope will follow from our engagement with them. But this raises the question of what those qualities are. I’ve written about this in the past in terms of the ontology of books: in reading there is a meeting between a book and ourselves. The book has a relatively fixed character (though it’s interesting to reread on a Kindle what was originally read in a paperback) but even this is prone to change given the historical vantage point from which we return. The more interesting change is in how we relate to books we once loved after we ourselves have been through changes.

For example my experience of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity was remarkably different on the second reading. When I read it first as a 31 year old caught up in romantic drama my experience centred on the lost and searching millennial Pip. When I read it again as a 37 year old in the early stages of getting divorced, the figure of Tom Aberant and his relationships with Leila and Anabel were foremost in my experience. I recognised things in the relational biographies of these characters which had passed me by on the first reading, with the life I had lived since the first reading providing me with a different position from which the second reading unfolded. It was edifying in Richard Rorty’s sense of “finding new, better, more interesting, more fruitful ways of speaking” but this was a unintended consequence of the experience; the pleasure came in returning to these characters, the world they inhabited and the moral universe they constituted for themselves, as someone who had myself changed in the intervening period.

I’m having a similar experience in returning to Irvine Welsh’s novels. There are characters who are foregrounded by the experiences I’ve accumulated since the first reading e.g. Billy Birrell who finds a route out of a life that was not right for him without feeling the need to leave his natal context behind. There are character arcs which are more nuanced than I remember (e.g. Sickboy’s exploitation of Maria in Skagboys) in some cases all the most disturbing for this additional depth I can now see. There are characters who are much more sympathetic on second reading e.g. Juice Terry for all his many moral failings. I’m more sensitive to redemptive struggles, failed but nonetheless sincere strivings for moral improvement, than I was when I was younger. There are also entire scenes I’d forgotten, perhaps reflecting points where I’d read on a noisy train and struggled to focus.

This relationship to fiction is one which unfolds over time, suggesting there are limits to how widely we can read in this way. Could I return to a novel I first read in my late 30s with the same piquancy which comes from returning to one I first read in my teens? I’d be hesitant to say it’s impossible but I suspect there’s a diminishing possibility for resonance. It’s nonetheless an interesting question about how we experience continuity with ourself; in reading again I revisit who I was when I first read the book, recognising what mattered to me and what stood out to me at that time. In this sense rereading can be seen as an indirect dialogue with the self, reminding us of how we change but also how we stay the same over time. There’s a depth to this experience which the didactic voice which criticises rereading simply fails to recognise.

Alan Jacobs describes how this can be a “simple and straightforward transformation of read-erly experience: I once was blind, but then I saw” but “our responses can be subtler, more complex, and harder to understand” (pg 96). He cites the example of suddenly getting a book which had previously eluded him in spite of no alteration in his circumstances. The irritating sociologist in me immediately wants to retort that this is no discernible alteration and suggest that our insight into how we’re changed by the situations we face in life is by its nature limited.

In this sense the “mystery of rereading” might be a route into a deeper understanding of how we are changing as we make our way through the world. Those occasions when we find something surprising in rereading provides us with an occasion to reflect on why that change has happened. By its nature this is not something we can draw definitive conclusions about but that doesn’t mean there’s no value in trying this. Oddly he recognises this point a few pages later in a discussion of Auden’s reflections on reading Kierkegaard seemingly without considering the same point can be applied to his own experience. He quotes this extract from the poet L.E. Sissman to describe the significance of what we reeread:

A list of books that you reread is like a clearing in the forest: a level, clean, well-lighted place where you set down your burdens and set up your home, your identity, your concerns, your continuity in a world that is at best indifferent, at worst malign. Since you, the reader, are that hero of modern literature, the existential loner, the smallest denominator of moral force, it behooves you to take counsel, sustenance, and solace from the writers who have been writing about you these hundred or five hundred years, to sequester yourself with their books and read and reread them to get a fix on yourself and a purchase on the world that will, with luck, like the house in the clearing, last you for life.

https://evidenceanecdotal.blogspot.com/2008/08/clearing-in-forest.html

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