12 June 2006

On reading and rereading

Read: Macbeth, A Winter’s Tale, Henry V
Listened to: Vivaldi and Corelli Concerti and Sonatas
Watched: Macbeth (Ian McKellen & Judi Dench in the excellently creepy RSN production), Romeo & Juliet (Jonathan Firth & Geraldine Somerville in a luscious if much-chopped HBO version), Shakespeare in Love

In this post I guess I am raising a bunch of interesting questions and would love to see some discussion. We already asked what do you have memorized, do you memorize poetry. Now let me ask two other questions: First: If you were to recommend one book to read over and over (the “What book would you have if you were marooned on a desert island” idea), what would it be? I guess you can say The Bible if you wish, because that’s part of this discussion, but also what other books of purely human composition yield the most treasures year after year after year? Second: What are the specific values of rereading? What is lost by rereading?

I am deep into my Shakespearean assignments for this summer’s studies, so you will be seeing much about The Bard in these pages for the next two months or so. Most of the plays I’m studying just now are re-reads for me: Macbeth, R & J, Henry V, Midsummer. But nothing is lost to me in re-reading except surprise and freshness, and much is gained. I am one of those cursed with the inability to remember what I’ve read/listened to/watched until I go through it again, and sometimes again. Books stick in my head after a second reading, if at all. The few exceptions to this—books/stories/poems that stick clearly and sharply in my mind on a first reading, those from which I can almost quote lines and describe scenes with great precision—must therefore be excellent works. I often judge a work’s quality by its memorability. My ability to recall phrases, sentences, whole passages after reading a work indicates that it must be brilliantly described; perspicacious, intuitive, and insightful; psychologically plausible, etc., but it’s probably not written with the skill of the 17th century poets! Shakespeare’s writing is imminently memorable, but of such high quality that it usually takes a couple of readings for it to stick. For me anyway. And yet, his cadences are natural, while lofty, his rhymes are musical and often simple; so sometimes a line or a half line resonates for days after even a first reading. For no reason, I had “Art thou a man? Thy form proclaims thou art; thy tears are womanish, they wild acts denote the unreasonable fury of a beast” and “Aroint thee, witch!” rattling around in my brain-pan for days. Shakespeare’s work seems nearly easier to memorize than to understand! Last night I found myself musing over the prologue to R & J: “Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona where we lay our scene / from old something spring to new mutiny / and civil blood makes civil hands unclean. / From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their lives / Whose misadventured piteous overthrows / Doth with their deaths bury their parents’ strife. Etc. And I find now that the process of memorizing walks hand-in-hand with the process of understanding. Reading a passage over and over in order to comprehend its meanings and shades of meanings, studying the editorial commentary (sometimes pages on a single word), learning about the etymology of the terms, seeing what OED has to say about it… these serve to fix the passage in the mind even as the stages of striving to memorize it bring about enlightenment of the meaning! I long to act in these plays, to memorize and live the parts…. One thing that struck me in Shakespeare in Love (Fiction! Fiction!) was how he apparently had all of his plays effortlessly memorized. So much so that he could play Romeo at a moment’s notice, quote all of Juliet’s lines while making love (hum), etc. Ah, to always have just the right Shakespeare quotation for just the right occasion!

But what about rereading? Why do we do it, why do we need to do it, do we do it enough, should we do it more? I said I am cursed with hardly being able to remember what I’ve read until a second or even third time around. But is that a curse? Not if I go back and back to the same best books and love them more each time. Here again is the link to Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson’s excellent articles on MacDonald; the second is about just this, about rereading Phantastes. I’m even going to quote some parts of her article, because it’s so good, and you might not take the time to read the whole thing via the link. Even if you do, reread it here!

Unraveling Phantastes
Few early Victorians were privileged enough to own many books, and a book was not simply read once and set aside. It was read and reread, the reader engaging with the text ever more deeply, each reading revealing new connections and presenting yet another journey…. Phantastes, like all books before it, expects a long-term relationship with the reader.
It is helpful when reading Phantastes to follow one theme that is noticeable early on in the tale … what it means to “die to oneself,” for instance. As this unfolds, other interwoven themes become evident, providing the next thread for the next read. The more one reads MacDonald, the more familiar one becomes with his primary themes, and the easier it is to follow their relations to each other, as well as to the books alluded to in the tale….
MacDonald points to [other] books not only to introduce them—he is also inviting the reader into a deeper conversation. As one reads the other books mentioned and then returns to MacDonald, suddenly one is part of a conversation that has been going on since God’s first story. MacDonald is responding to Tennyson responding to Blake responding to Dante, who in turn is responding to John responding to Christ, who is reminding us of the words of Isaiah, or the Psalms, or Moses. This conversation between texts is part of the Christian heritage, part of understanding who we are and who God is….
C. S. Lewis wrote that a first read reveals the plot and characters; it is in the experience of rereading that we find wisdom and strength. But be forewarned; rereading Phantastes did change his life.
—Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson

Even before reading Kirstin’s article, I had a personal rule about poetry and dense short stories: read it three times before making any final conclusions about its quality or meaning(s). Of course, some poems reveal nothing I want to pursue on the first reading, and I put them aside in favour of others. Then there are those I will never cease rereading, such as the Divine Comedy, The Prelude, Kubla Khan, Paradise Lost, Millay’s sonnets, the works of Hopkins and Herbert. I come back to these over and over and am always re-amazed.

Hilaire Belloc said of Johnson’s Rasselas: “Every man ought to read Rasselas and every wise man will read it over half a dozen times in his life. Indeed, a man would do well to read it once a year at least, for never was wisdom better put.”

With these ideas in mind, what, then, is really the value of presenting students with selections from great works, which they read once, perhaps barely understand, talk about for a few minutes or part of an hour in a class they may not be very excited about attending, and then set aside? Well, I guess the hope is that they do not set them aside forever. In our discussion about “The Canon,” what to assign in a Christian Classics class, Rosie said something like At the very least, they’ll recognize these names and titles and passages again in the future as being vaguely familiar, and maybe that will push them into further readings and rereadings. Familiarity is friendly, and often is itself and introduction to deeper relationship. Isn’t love at first sight often described as a feeling that I must have met you before, I’ve always known you, I met you in a dream? So let us teachers give our students that good dream, that haze of great literature, that one day they might step through it into the love we ourselves know to be so rewarding! That said, I have higher expectations for my classes, and hope to give more than a vague impression. I hope to encourage some rereading and deeper study of at least the most essential passages of the literature we study. Some works they will encounter in more than one class; so much the better!

Now, perhaps the most important question: What about the Bible? What about rereading the Bible? We are told to meditate on the Word of God day and night, to bind it on our foreheads, to walk about with it in our hearts. Surely these are injunctions to read it over and over and over, to memorize it either intentionally or as a by-product of living with it and in it. Some people reread the entire Bible every year, or favorite books over constantly. The values of Scripture memorization are highly extolled by many wise people, and I have found it rewarding in the past. Now I have subsided into a sort of vague knowledge of many passages, specific quotable knowledge of a sizable handful of popular verses, and a maybe-maybe-not-better-than-average idea of where to find things in the Scripture. Is this enough? How much would be enough? First-century Jewish scholars had the entire Torah memorized. I know a man who has the whole book of Proverbs in his head. The real point is this: What you reread and what you memorize becomes a part of your life. I don’t know how far to go with that. If I go around saying “Is this a dagger that I see before me,” am I more in danger of hell-fire than if I recite the 23rd Psalm? No, but which will be more edifying in the long run? And are rereading and memorizing necessarily connected? Perhaps this fast-paced media world needs to slow down and spend more time on the page, the same pages many times, delighting in the unfolding of the words through maturing years.

-- Admonit


Rosie Perera said...

Only time for a quick reply now, as I'm leaving for Europe tomorrow. Will hopefully have more to say when I get back.

I can't choose just one book that's worth rereading or bringing to a desert island. My list would include:
C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia
Augustine, Confessions
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love
Adrian van Kaam, Spirituality and the Gentle Life

I seem to recall that Eugene Peterson used to reread Calvin's Institutes every year. Not sure if he still does that.

The benefits of rereading are many. C.S. Lewis said something along the lines of this: when you buy a book you're actually buying six or seven books, because you can reread it every decade, and you'll be a different person each time, so the book will say something new to you.

I like rereading great books:
(1) to remind myself of the content. Like you, my memory for what I've read isn't great.
(2) to get more meat out of them if they were rich the first time through

One of the downsides of rereading is it takes time away from chipping away at the enormous list of books I've never read that I still want to read. So I don't actually reread very often (perhaps one or two books a year). Rarely have I ever reread a book a third time.

My ability to recall passages from books has less, I think, to do with how well they were written than what my state of mind was when I was reading. Did I read slowly, pause over important bits and reread them and reflect on them right then and there? Or was I just rushing through to get the general gist of it? Reading anything (not just the Bible) can be a prayerful, meditative experience, and we can find things that are worth committing to memory intentionally, and ruminating on for sometime afterwards.

Iambic Admonit said...

I'm also leaving for Europe tomorrow, but a quick thought:

I would probably choose Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, but I suppose even that masterpiece would get dull if it were the only book I could read. Actually, I wonder what endless layers of meaning, relevance, interpretation, application, allusion, rhetoric, etc. I would find if I really just read the Bible all the time and nothing else! Wow, that would be an amzing journey, but I'm afraid with life as it is, it would have to be enforced. I don't think I have the courage to pray to be stranded on a desert island with nothing but a Bible, though it would be life-changing and sublime!

kejj said...

duh! I can't believe I left the CSL quote on another comment, not having seen this entry! ;)
thanks for the compliment of thinking the thoughts worth sharing though!
feeling a little like an 'academic airhead' at the moment ;)