Friday, October 15, 2010

The Joys of Rereading

In his essay "On Stories," C. S. Lewis outlines two ways of enjoying a novel and argues that people who enjoy a book in only one way miss out on something.  His first type of enjoyment comes from reading for the plot: wondering what happens and experiencing "the tension and appeasement of imagined anxiety."  For this kind of reading (and for readers who enjoy books only in this way), the more danger, the better.  Keep the pace up.  Take the hero right from one harrowing near-disaster right into another.

The problem with reading only for this purpose, he says, is that desire for excitement doesn't care what kind of danger the hero is in.  Lewis claims to have failed once in explaining this to a fan of James Fennimore Cooper.  This fellow said that he read only for the excitement, and Lewis tried to teach him something about himself.  Surely, he said, it's more than that: without the wigwams and the forests and the Indian names, these books wouldn't differ from any other thrillers.  His friend astonished him, though, by claiming he didn't care at all about the setting and atmosphere of the books.

While Lewis discovered that not everyone reads for atmosphere, he still advocated doing so, even if we also read for the thrill of the plot.  And he provided a simple test.  Do you like to reread books?  If so, you can't be reading for the suspense and must be reading to reimmerse yourself in the atmosphere.  A person reading correctly reads a book again not for the surprise, since we already know the outcome, but for the surprisingness.  Let me just say that if C. S. Lewis offers a test, I want very much to pass it.  And I did.  Just barely.

Until about six years ago, I had reread only a handful of books (other than short children's books):  A Tale of Two Cities, The Lord of the Rings, Charles Williams's Many Dimensions, and a very few others.  I've had reading lists, physical or mental, for almost as long as I can remember.  I went to the public library once when I was about six and sat down with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, determined to get through a chapter or so and then take it home.  After finding out that I couldn't make it through the first page, I made a note: read this book when you get older, and then all the other Jules Verne novels.  (I fulfilled this pact with myself in my teen years.)  My temperament tells me to read these things, to keep making the list longer and keep checking off the items.  So it was a big moment for me to start a systematic program of rereading.  It seemed to me a marker of midlife, an admission that I could not lengthen the list forever and must prepare to die satisfied that I had read a finite number of books.  (Pathetic, I know.  Some guys get red cars. Some guys get girlfriends.  I reread Vanity Fair.)

A large portion of the Plan includes books to reread: Dickens, Paradise Lost, and Pascal, for instance, as well as Lewis's space trilogy and Boswell's Life of Johnson.  I'm certainly not reading Boswell again for the plot.  There are no dangers or unexpected twists, no trajectory such as you find in, for instance, Lincoln's life.  Johnson's life just dances through conversations, dinner parties, and letters, and I read to be there with him, to sit at an old, rough deal table with round stains from countless mugs of beer, and to listen in on lofty conversation.

One evening we dine at the house of the brothers Dilly, bookseller friends.  The subject of bird migration arises, a new subject about which much doubt still prevails.  One of the company, perhaps the Reverend Mr. Toplady (I assume this is the author of "Rock of Ages"), points out against the theory of bird migration that some woodcocks have been seen in Essex in the summer.  Johnson replies: "Sir, that strengthens our argument.  Exceptio probat regulam.  Some being found shews, that, if all remained, many would be found."  Oh, to be in the company of writers interested in current scientific controversy, of friends that call each other "sir," of educated people who know Latin, of thinkers who understand how an exception proves a rule, of speakers who can draw the argument so quickly and so eloquently!  Rereading fulfills my wish.

"The literary man re-reads," says Lewis, "other men simply read.  A novel once read is to them like yesterday's newspaper.  One may have some hopes of a man who has never read the Odyssey, or Malory, or Boswell, or Pickwick: but none (as regards literature) of the man who tells you he has read them, and thinks that settles the matter.  It is as if a man said he had once washed, or once slept, or once kissed his wife, or once gone for a walk."  I've already reread The Pickwick Papers, and the other three are on my list.  So, as I said, I pass the test.

But before I feel too good about myself, I have a confession to make: Lewis's test was based on a false assumption.  I read novels again not just for the setting but for the surprises, too.  Maybe I concentrate too much on atmosphere, but I forget plot pretty quickly.  I can even reread mysteries, because I never, ever remember who done it.


  1. I've been rereading books all my life. I think it's partly because of the atmosphere (I never reread something where I didn't enjoy the atmosphere), and partly to clarify my memory on what exactly happened. Once I've read a book two or three times, things that happen in my life start to make me say, "Hey, this is similar to a book I've read..." It kind of makes me feel like I'm in a book. :D

  2. I reread Lewis' essays, and it makes me feel like I'm in his office. Of course, he's not there. If I have questions, I just ask Ex Libris Magnis. I remember rereading "The Great Divorce." In fact, I've read it four or five times. Atmosphere--check! Plot line--check!