Sunday, October 22, 2006


As I think I've posted here before, in my reading-for-pleasure life I'm a compulsive rereader - and generally what I reread is not particularly amazing writing. I reread for pleasure precisely because if I'm reading something new - whatever its quality or lack thereof - I find it very difficult to close up shop for the night and to go to sleep at a sensible bedtime. I read in great big gulps - hours at a stretch, through meals, through whatever. I find it difficult, when reading something new, to put a book down.

That said, when it comes to work reading, I don't tend to reread very much. I'm not sure if this makes me unique among people who work on literature or not, nor am I sure if this is an entirely positive thing. I suspect that more of my colleagues in my discipline probably do reread more than I do for work. Part of the reason that I don't tend to reread is because of the compulsive fashion in which I take notes on things that I use for teaching or research. While of course I could reread things in their entirety anyway, I generally don't, as with all of the notes it's just not necessary. In some respects, this habit has served me particularly well, especially given my teaching load. It's an efficient way to work - to spend a bunch of time in the first and maybe second go-arounds annotating, and then to just do a quick skim when one picks up a book to teach it again or just to read relevent sections closely for one's research. If I had to read every single thing that I teach in its entirety every time that I teach it - or to read every single thing that I write about in its entirety every time that I do research on it - I probably would have died of exhaustion long ago. (Though, of course, perhaps that has to do with the compulsive note-taking, too, so maybe this doesn't kill other people.)

But so I've been rereading To the Lighthouse, because my original copy is hiding from me or lost forever (hard to know which), and this has been a revelation. It is very strange to read something with which one is very familiar and which at one point had compulsively annotated and yet to read it clean, as if it had never been touched by me or read by me before. (This is not the same thing as buying a new copy of a book when one has the old copy as well, for even if one does reread, one can turn back to the "original" and either copy in notes from it or enter into conversation with those notes.)

The experience is bizarre for so many reasons. It's bizarre when I hit upon a passage that stood out to me in the past and I can remember what I thought about it (and wrote about it) but where now my interpretation is slightly different, and so I find myself transcribing notes from memory and then adding nuances to those semi-remembered ideas. It's bizarre when I hit upon a passage or image that is so clearly crucial to me now but to which I didn't give a second thought on previous readings - as if I'm reading a different book, at some points. It's also bizarre to read this in preparation to teach it - this is a book that I read as a student, and on which I wrote as a student, and coming to it from this vantage point seems foreign. I find myself anticipating student responses - trying to connect the text to other texts we're covering this semester - and so I can't get lost in the book in the way that I remember getting lost in it as a student. Finally, it's bizarre that I don't find the book at all difficult, which was one of the key attractions of it for me when I first read it. I wanted to figure out the puzzle with which I felt it presented me. Now, I no longer feel like it's a puzzle. Now, it just makes sense.

I don't know. It's odd, because one might trace my path to becoming an academic directly back to my experience with this book as an 18-year-old college freshman. And after I wrote on it as a graduate student, I pretty consciously chose to abandon it because I loved it too much and I didn't want to spoil it for myself with working on it more. (This, at least in my experience, has been a key consideration in choosing what to teach and what to do research on. I find that if I love something too much, I feel like the experience of taking it apart does a violence not to the book but to my love for it. I also have a hard time getting outside of my own perspective enough to do any truly good critical work on those books that I love wholeheartedly. This is not to say that I've not written on or taught books that I love wholeheartedly, but doing so changes them for me in ways that I sometimes resist and resent.) But so on this reading, I am in love with this book again, but I'm in love with a different book from the one that I first fell in love with, if that makes any sense.

I remember, on first reading To the Lighthouse, being very preoccupied with the parent-characters - Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. I remember also being very preoccupied with Charles Tansley, whom I despised. I was intrigued by Lily Briscoe, and I tried very hard to figure her out, but I didn't really "get" what Woolf was doing with her.

On this reading, though, at 32 years old to the single Lily Briscoe's 33, this novel is making much more sense to me. I'm noticing the children more, noticing William Bankes more. I'm seeing why it matters that Lily sees Mrs. Ramsay as a dark violet wedge of paint. I'm seeing why it matters that Lily is trying to paint but can't allow herself to think of herself as a "painter" or an "artist" (and I'm seeing that this is not only because she is an oppressed woman). I'm seeing this novel and its characters more fully in part because of my own life experiences but perhaps more importantly because I don't have all of the marginal voices - of my younger self, of my teachers, of my classmates - shouting in the background. I can still hear those voices in whispers, but I don't feel like I have to answer them unless I want to. And this time around, this novel is not so dark or so dense to me. It is not nearly so earnest.

So perhaps the novel that I loved so much that I put it to the side was not, in fact, the novel that I'm reading now or even the novel that it is. Maybe I should do a bit more rereading that has nothing to do with wanting to be able to go to sleep at a reasonable time. Who knows what I might find?


~profgrrrrl~ said...

It is interesting how familiar favorites change and are understood differently with time and experience. I wrote a few weeks ago about seeing a favorite movie again and relating to the themes in a very different way from my 20-year-old self.

Hmm. This post is inspiring a desire to revisit a few favorite book (The Small Rain; and it's been a while for Heathcliff and Catherine ...)

Marcelle Proust said...

What a great post. I think I'm going to have to write my own one on this topic, but I too am a re-reader, and there are differences in how I re-read different books, and I wish I were more of a note-taker so I could have the sort of experience you're having now. There are certain books I feel I've always had with me and yet I know I must once have seen them really differently than I do now.

Alice said...

I think I will reread To the Lighthouse over the holidays. I read it almost ten years ago and so Lily's situation will make so much more sense now. What a great idea! :)

Anonymous said...

I envy your reading experience. I love VW for her technique rather than the content--the tunneling is fantastic. Thanks for the posting.

luolin said...

I do the same thing: I do much more re-reading for pleasure than re-reading for work. Recently, I've done a little more of the re-reading for work, though.