In the last couple of years I’ve started to become fascinated with the study of reading and narrative. I partly blame a friend who specializes in a related academic discipline. I haven’t read a lot about theories of reading yet (amusing irony!) but I have some academic books in my Giant Wishlist of Doom.
I’m going to ramble on a bit about the vague scraps of ideas I’ve acquired so far.
One of the theories is that the experience you have while reading a book is different from the experience you have of that book after you’ve finished reading it. My understanding is this: while you’re reading the book, you’re absorbing it as something incomplete. The narrative draws you forward because you expect to get answers to questions posed by the narrative; the story can surprise you. You don’t have the whole picture because in your mind the whole picture doesn’t, can’t, yet exist. Once you’ve finished reading the book, it can be more of an object; you can experience the novel as a structure with bounds instead of a linear narrative that stretches forward into a blank future. I’m not sure I agree with the linear part, since many novels aren’t strictly linear, what with flashbacks, the reader remembering foreshadowing they encountered earlier in the story, narratives that jump around in time, that sort of thing. But anyway. I might not understand what theorists mean by “linear,” either. Or rather, I do have a vague idea of how “linear” goes along with flashbacks and foreshadowing and such, but I can’t write it down coherently yet. Maybe later.
Another idea is that, because you don’t have the whole picture of the book first time around, re-reading is different cognitively. When you’re re-reading, your primary attention doesn’t have to be on finding answers to questions. You can’t be surprised in the same manner, so your mind is freer to engage with the novel in a more critical way. You can rethink your interpretations of the text, or look for patterns in the narrative, or simply catch things you missed before.
However, I think a major reason to re-read a book is purely for pleasure. You enjoyed the book the first time, and perhaps the second; now you want to experience that pleasure again. The pleasure is only deepened when you can think more critically about the book.
For the next three days, starting tomorrow, I’m posting about my re-read of Jane Eyre. I seem to recall it was summer the first time I read it. Now, it’s spring. Some days are still chilly, but they’re bright and flowers are blooming. Nothing could be more unlike the beginning section of Jane Eyre, when the weather is so bad outside they can’t take a walk, and the emotional weather inside is even more turbulent.
Since I know the book well, I found I can enjoy reading even the parts that disturb or enrage me because there’s also enough room in my mind to think outside of the story. This time, for instance, I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between bullying young John Reed and Dudley Dursley in the early Harry Potter books (which didn’t yet exist the first time I read Jane Eyre). But more on my re-read tomorrow. Lots and lots more.
What’s your favorite book or books to re-read? And why?