Readers fall into two general but very uneven categories: those who read a book once and then rarely return to it and those who regularly reread. At least among adults, this second category is far less common, and most of those who belong to it have some scholarly or pedagogical reason for revisiting books. Almost all “pure” rereaders—those insatiable consumers who crave stories like a drunk craves whiskey, who will finish a novel and then turn back to the beginning and read it straight through again—are children.
Author Patricia Meyer Spacks is no exception to the rule. A retired professor of English who has taught at institutions such as Wellesley, Yale, and the University of Virginia, she is without question a professional rereader. Yet on page 1 of On Rereading, a memoir of her deliberate project to reread a variety of books she had read at least once before, she quotes one of those rare adult rereaders who has allowed himself to revert to a childlike companionship with books:
Consider Larry McMurtry, writing in his early seventies: “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security. How nice to be able to return to what won’t change.” McMurtry reports that publishers keep sending him new books to comment on. He sends them back, preferring the books he already knows. “When I sit down at dinner with a given book,” McMurtry writes, “I want to know what I’m going to find.”
Spacks finds McMurtry’s behavior appealing but unsatisfactory. To her, his comment “suggests that a book reread offers what will not change—but for most rereaders, rereading provides, in contrast, an experience of repeated unexpected change.” She seems, in this remark, to assume that McMurtry’s preference for “know[ing] what I’m going to find” implies that he has a static relationship with what he reads. And that assumption, like her phrase for most rereaders, is telling; for Spacks’s book almost entirely overlooks the existence of another small but important group of adult rereaders: people who reread because an intense, non-analytical relationship with a handful of books is key to their own creative enterprise.
This disconnect may seem subtle, but it has influenced nearly every element of this book, from the rereading project itself, to Spacks’s analysis of her results, to the tone of her prose. Yet her gentle memoir has a great deal of charm, and the author is an appealing narrator who conveys on every page her deep, respectful, and abiding love for the way in which rereading affects our moral and emotional comprehension of the world. “Rereading,” she notes, “is a way of paying attention. It takes books seriously and allows them to do their work: work that includes the changing of one’s self and consequently of one’s life, although in the nature of things we never quite glimpse the changes as they occur.”
As one might expect from a long-time teacher, Spacks planned her project carefully. She chose books such as L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and Munro Leaf’s The Tale of Ferdinand that she had loved as a child but had not read since. She revisited books such as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Saul Bellow’s Herzog that she had strongly liked or disliked as a younger adult. She considered “guilty pleasures”—books she had formerly found herself reading for relaxation, such as P. G. Wodehouse’s stories and novels. Most often she had read her chosen book just once before, or years had elapsed since her last rereading. Only occasionally did she discuss novels such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that she continues to reread regularly.
Given that Spacks has already published scholarly works about many of the novels that might have fallen into this last category, her choice of books is logical, for it has given her a fresh way to note how time and memory can distort or clarify our relationship to literature. But the methodical rationales she lays out for her choices, the patient plot summaries and close readings she includes, the instructional tone of each explication and conclusion undercut what, to me, is a key reason for rereading: that greedy, indiscriminate, almost desperate longing for a book one has loved for a lifetime. This, I think, is what McMurtry has allowed himself to reexperience. It’s not that Spacks overlooks this longing, but for the most part she relegates it to her past. She may have a certain amount of nostalgia for that blind enchantment, she frequently acknowledges that even adult rereading can be “a form of self-indulgence or relaxation,” but she can no longer simply absorb a book into her imagination’s bloodstream. As a professional rereader, she has, for the most part, shed the sloppy, indiscriminate, obsessive habits of her youth. She has retrained herself, and that “analytic frame of mind, far from spoiling my enjoyment of reading, only adds to it; and I absolutely believe that to be true as a general proposition.”
It’s not true as a general proposition. I know from my own experience as both a poet and an obsessive rereader that an “analytic frame of mind” more often than not hinders my creative engagement with a text. But if Spacks seems slightly myopic about how different sorts of intellects might approach rereading, she did give me great joy in her choice of books. So many of them were exactly the novels that I, too, have read, and read again, and yet again: Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine . . .To imagine her sitting in her chair by the fire dreaming over Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped gives me great happiness, for it is always a joy to learn that somebody else loves the books I love . . . as if, in a way, that stranger and I now also love one another. Of such mysteries is rereading made.