Year-End Special: A reader’s guide to rereading
In an age of endless new recommendations, a rereader muses on the unexpected joys of revisiting a book
Between August and October, I read—really read, with both heart and mind—only one novel. It was Edward Seidensticker’s 1957 translation of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, which I loved so deeply that it dislodged every long-standing favourite from the top of my list of most beloved books. For two months, the clock ticked, and my to-read pile, which I will never get around to finishing in this life, grew too large to think about. Two months! It wasn’t even my first time reading the novel; and yet, strangely, it was the happiest and most fruitful time I spent with a book this year.
I wish I could say The Makioka Sisters, which may baldly be described as the saga of a genteel Osaka family in the 1930s trying to arrange a suitable match for their ageing third sister, had inflamed me when I first read it. The truth is I didn’t remember a word of it when I reopened it on a rainy evening commute. Fifteen years ago, hungry for literary prestige after a lifetime of reading school stories, I cracked open the tattered paperback, clumsily reinforced with cardboard covers by the librarians of Mumbai’s St Xavier’s college, and swallowed it whole. I read it in four days. In return, Tanizaki left me only a check mark on my list of renowned world classics. I was filled with self-importance at having consumed a prime specimen of the Japanese novel, but frustrated and resentful that it wasn’t more rewarding, like something on the Booker Prize shortlist.
Some books resist our desire for their intellectual capital. They yield only to a humble quest for pleasure, and for repose in a different world. Tanizaki, who spent his life writing about people compelled to lie to themselves, did not write to display, much less reward, cleverness. In October, I emerged from The Makioka Sisters like someone coming up from cool, still water into the sunshine of a winter morning. My mind was buoyed by its challenge and respite. If I could have hugged my child self for being so prickly and obtuse, I would have.
Amidst happy announcements of resolutions fulfilled and annual reading goals achieved, to write in favour of slow rereading must seem like posturing. Isn’t it a form of silly machismo, like the young man I once worked with who claimed that he bought a copy of The Catcher In The Rye every time he entered a book store? The 19th century English essayist William Hazlitt, author of the waspish screed On Reading Old Books, said he wanted only to read “twenty or thirty volumes" for the rest of his life, and dismissed women as gadflies who “judge of books as they do of fashions or complexions, which are admired ‘only in their newest gloss’." Leave us alone, William Hazlitt. Life is short; we are not obliged to finish every book on our Amazon wish list, but we must at least try.
Hyper-literacy is a completely reasonable approach to a world in which information is more readily available than time. Yet reading accumulatively can often feel like fighting an unwinnable, unwanted fight. Take my case, that of a work-a-day editor and writer. I enjoy most books the way a contestant in a pie-eating competition enjoys the pie. I cannot have read more than five novels purely for fun in 2017. How, then, could I further break down the experience of reading into the census of read/now reading/to-read lists? It would make an already utilitarian process repressive. I can’t be both reviewer and accountant, because reading remains, and will always be, my deepest and most sentimental pleasure.
This may sound like a shameless want of gratitude for the spigot of information opened for us by capital and its opposable thumb, technology. Nonetheless, it’s striking to consider that through most of the history of literacy, people were lucky to grow up with one book in the house. Hazlitt, an inheritor of the European Enlightenment, lived in a glut of knowledge. Religious practice in most major faiths is founded on scholarly interrogation and interpretation—in other words, literary criticism—of holy writ. For long centuries, one life was not considered long enough to truly know a work of scripture in any religion.
That is why the Catholic saint Thomas Aquinas said, or may have said, to beware homo unius libri, the “man of one book". It was not to disparage the person who read too little, but to sound a warning about single-minded readers, who knew one thing, but so well that they could use that knowledge as a weapon (the fictional seer Jojen Reed in G.R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire—a series that does not support rereading, in my sad experience—takes a more forgiving view. He proclaims, with the boundless self-assurance of boys in fantasy novels, that readers live many lives before they die, while others live but one).
This is not at all to knock #ReadingGoals, or having three books going simultaneously, or taking every book discussion as a source of recommendations. After all, to be able to read widely and ambitiously is a dazzling and very new privilege. The history of literacy is also the history of humans fighting, and sometimes dying, for the right to read more than one book. To Aquinas, eclecticism was dangerous business; to us, it’s a way to live democratically and creatively.
But there is a difference between productive chaos and frenzy. Theodor Adorno used a wonderfully resonant phrase, “the belly turned mind", to describe the hunger to consume all experience and systematize it—a fault peculiar to ideological thinkers, but not uncommon in a world in which the value of knowledge increases when it can be consumed as data.
Books and reading lists have always been aspirational for readers, but in a consumer culture, its proportions can be senselessly magnified. Earlier this month, for example, the website Literary Hub produced an “Ultimate Best Books" list of 2017 that analysed entries on the best-of lists published by most major American magazines. There were 520 discrete entries— and the survey left out The New York Times’ 100-strong “Notable Books" of the year. Possibly to some readers all this looks like a feast. To me, it looks like overeating.
In this context, the act of rereading provides some critical resistance. It allows us to hang on to the usable parts of our consciousness, and to prune its decayed and outgrown pathways. Anne Fadiman, who edited the “Rereadings" column of The American Scholar for many years, writes that revisiting a book can force you “to spend time, at claustrophobically close range, with your earnest, anxious, pretentious, embarrassing former self, a person you thought you had left behind but who turns out to have been living inside you all along."
Sometimes, that means letting go of beloved old books that have lost their meaning, or revealed the minefields of bigotry and self-hatred we could not see in them when we were younger. Who among us can now read Ayn Rand without rolling our eyes? Fadiman, rereading C.S. Lewis’ The Horse And His Boy to her little son, is disturbed to discover that the book is casually racist and seriously woman-hating.
Even so, an old, abandoned book—or a book that has abandoned us, as Tanizaki did me—can often repair our relationship with the past. No one has expressed this more beautifully than Pico Iyer, who wrote an essay about rediscovering a juvenile D.H. Lawrence novella for Fadiman’s column. When he thought back to his 15-year-old self, devouring the dubious The Virgin And The Gypsy at his stuffy boarding school, Iyer saw just how valuable the whole exercise was, because: “Escape was less the point than a kind of tenderness that could flicker into something higher."
No two novelists could be more different than Tanizaki and Lawrence. Yet Iyer’s words moved me, because I too felt that tenderness, derived not from the writer’s vulnerability, but my own. I’m now convinced that to renew that feeling for a little while, it is worth turning away from the ticking clock and the to-read pile. To eschew the consumption of new things is often just a form of inverse snobbery. But it is a miracle to grant literature the vast luxury of time.