Lisa Maguire Fiction

On Re-reading

Posted on | April 15, 2012 | No Comments

“You’re reading that again?” asks my husband. “Why?” He’s one of those people who buys an album and enjoys it on first listen, and then puts it away and listens to something else. As a teenager, whenever I bought a new record, I played it over and over until the needle had worn its grooves and it had become a flea in the ear. Not surprising then that I re-read books. A lot. I think I have read Madame Bovary about six times. What’s peculiar to my husband (and maybe others, too) is the quality of my re-readings. It’s mostly not Flaubert.

I’m not one of those show-offy people who says in passing that they spent the summer re-reading say, The Federalist Papers. Jack Thurston of the Guardian points out that this is really just a way of saying I’m so clever that I’ve read all the great works and am having to start over again. “After all, no one talks about re-reading Tintin.”

Except with me it may well be Tintin. Pulp novels, trash biographies, pony books from childhood…What is the reason for re-reading them when I have only read Don Quixote once?

I loved Don Quixote, or rather I did not love it, I admired it. There are books you love and books you admire. Some books you admire can also be loved:  Proust, Flaubert, and Mavis Gallant come to mind.  Nonfiction, too: I have read Milosz, Orwell, and Primo Levi over again as well. But there are books that you read again and again for no other reason than that you love them. I don’t think any of the books I love actually stink;  it’s just that it is hard to defend dipping into Mildred Pierce yet again when there are so classic novels that I have never read, and so many new, worthy books coming out that I know I will never get around to reading.

Why then to I keep turning back to my old favorites? Barthes talks about the pleasure of the text, the ‘readerly text’ that does not ‘challenge the reader’s position as a subject,’  a text that reminds me that I am a reader, and that this is what I am reading.

There is another reason. Never mind Barthes and his fancy-pants phenomenology, the truth is I am a lazy reader, and do not like to work very hard when I read. Re-reading is always easier than reading something the first time;  it’s always less work. It feels like a comfy chair. No wonder I turn to an old favorite when I want to have a snack of toast, or soak in the tub.

Why do I read if I do not feel like working? Why not watch TV until the feeling passes and then dive into Finnegan’s Wake? The philosophy major at my house tells me that for Aristotle the purpose of any work we do is  leisure, and reading is an act of ‘contemplative leisure,’ in which we are perfect and perfect in the present. We read for many purposes, so this is not exactly true (I spend much of my workday reading).  But the point remains that if perfection is doing something that is not for the sake of other things but an end in itself, then what could be more perfect than losing yourself in a well-loved and familiar novel for no particular end– after all, you cannot even say that you are reading for the plot.

There is something pleasurable about skimming along to a well-remembered scene, an entertaining bit of dialogue known by heart, the comfort of knowing what’s coming next. Fiction characters become old friends, and, unlike human friends, never change. They continue to charm and delight the way they did the first time. The best-loved books have something on the page that loses you in the story and brings back the pleasure of the first reading all over again.

Barthes also said that while one may experience pleasure in a ”readerly’ text, only the ‘writerly’ text can bring bliss. But as I sink into a hot bubble bath and crack open Edie:  An American Biography and begin to read again about Edie Sedgwick doing the watusi on her leather rhino, Wallow, I think:  bliss.


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