Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Book in Hand – Why Re-Read a Book?

Some of the members of my book group are astonished that I would ever read a book two, three, or even four times. For example, in my perennial requests to include Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre on our reading list, I sometimes mention that I’ve read the book many times. “Why would you re-read it?” they ask. “Isn’t once enough?”

“Well,” I might return, “Why do you listen to a Beethoven symphony more than once? Or see a Shakespeare play that you’ve already seen before? Or look upon a painting, or sculpture, or vista that you’ve seen many times before?”

The answer is, of course, that great works of art and literature are worthy to be experienced over and over again, for a variety of reasons.

A really good book can be so rich that we cannot possibly perceive, understand or appreciate it in a single reading. This is especially true in great works of fiction, where a tightly-woven narrative and compelling plot might lead us to read from start to finish so quickly that we can’t really take in all the details. Hence, a second (or third) reading enables us to read more slowly so that we can appreciate language, textual construction, literary and historical references, and the like.

Because we, as readers, change over time, our understanding of the books we read also changes. I first read Jane Eyre when I was about 10 years old, and loved it then for its compelling story and characters. My understanding of the book has evolved as I have matured. When I re-read it as s a young woman, just coming into maturity and forging a life for myself, I was attracted to Jane’s independent thinking and integrity. Re-reading it now, after more than a quarter-century of marriage to a man I love and respect, I am most moved by the enduring love and mutual respect in the relationship between Jane and Rochester. So — my reading of this book has developed and matured over the years, as (I hope) I have. And it is only through repeated readings that I have been able to experience the breadth and depth of this book. How could a ten-year old girl appreciate this book with the same understanding as a 50-year-old woman?

This winter, I re-read several classics. It all started with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which I read every December. (You can read my comments on Dickens and Christmas here.) That led me to my first reading of The Pickwick Papers (delightful!) and my second reading of Little Dorritt, which I had first read about 20 years ago. High time for a re-read! I had enjoyed the story of Little Dorritt when I first read it, but this time around, I found new appreciation for Dickens’ skill as a writer, particular in his virtuosic use of motivic language and imagery. (I’m now part way through my first reading of The Old Curiosity Shop … oh, it’s just wonderful.)

By contrast, my recent re-reading of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights gave me far less pleasure than when I had read it earlier. I first read this book during my teen years, when the idea of Cathy and Heathcliff’s doomed love probably resonated with my own experiences. Though the story still moves me now, Brontë’s writing seems overwrought, and her characters behave so stupidly that it’s hard to take it seriously. Interestingly, the recent dramatization on PBS was better than the book; this film adaptation simplified the story and portrayed Heathcliff as a reasonably sympathetic character, demonstrating clearly the sense of injury that drove his revenge and retribution.

From there it was on to Thomas Hardy, with re-readings of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, and Far from the Madding Crowd (my very most favorite of all Hardy’s novels, and perhaps of all 19th-century literature). I treasure Hardy for his ability to evoke time and place, for his skill in creating realistic conversations between all sorts of people, for his ability to understand and portray the subtleties of relationships between men and women, and for his willingness to challenge societal norms through his literature. Though I do not always agree with his conclusions, I love his stories.

And just for fun, I enjoyed a re-read of The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins. Collins rivals (and in many ways, exceeds) his friend Dickens in his ability to create memorable characters, fantastic plots, and a real page-turning suspense. If you haven't read The Moonstone, give it a try.

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