The Joys and Merits of Re-reading

For some years I taught a course on modern literature, the final assignment for which was to choose the ‘best book of the twentieth century’. The key word in this is obviously “best” and part of completing the exercise was establishing the criteria by which to judge the ‘best’. Because without criteria the whole project is effectively meaninglessly subjective and prone to the ‘I like it’ approach to literature that I had devoted much of the previous parts of the course persuading students to abandon.

The range of criteria was always fascinating, but I would every year argue for re-readability.

Because, when I was a student, I hated the idea that we as readers are meant to unearth THE MEANING of a book and if we can’t spot THAT MEANING, there was and is still a whiff of an accusation of our stupidity. This critical method came accompanied by all manner of unfortunate metaphors about ‘penetrating to the core’ of the work – and other such stuff.

So, in response to this I began to think about reading in other ways. Influenced by Roland Barthes’s essay “The death of the author” I began to think of reading as a collaboration between author and reader, in which meanings were generated through that interaction. This at least acknowledged the simple and obvious fact that readers have different subject positions. Not just that they are individuals, but that their experiences and perceptions are shaped by their social place in the world.

A quick example. From D.H Lawrence:

Birkin, white and strangely ghostly, went over to the carved figure of the negro woman in labour. Her nude, protuberant body crouched in a strange, clutching posture, her hands gripping the ends of the band, above her breast.

‘It is art,’ said Birkin. 

‘Very beautiful, it’s very beautiful,’ said the Russian. 

They all drew near to look. Gerald looked at the group of men, the Russian golden and like a water-plant, Halliday tall and heavily, brokenly beautiful, Birkin very white and indefinite, not to be assigned, as he looked closely at the carven woman. Strangely elated, Gerald also lifted his eyes to the face of the wooden figure. And his heart contracted. 

He saw vividly with his spirit the grey, forward-stretching face of the negro woman, African and tense, abstracted in utter physical stress. It was a terrible face, void, peaked, abstracted almost into meaninglessness by the weight of sensation beneath. He saw the Pussum in it. As in a dream, he knew her. 

‘Why is it art?’ Gerald asked, shocked, resentful. 

‘It conveys a complete truth,’ said Birkin. ‘It contains the whole truth of that state, whatever you feel about it.’ 

‘But you can’t call it HIGH art,’ said Gerald. 

‘High! There are centuries and hundreds of centuries of development in a straight line, behind that carving; it is an awful pitch of culture, of a definite sort.’ 

‘What culture?’ Gerald asked, in opposition. He hated the sheer African [originally this word was ‘barbaric’, but it is not clear to me who made the change] thing. 

‘Pure culture in sensation, culture in the physical consciousness, really ultimate PHYSICAL consciousness, mindless, utterly sensual. It is so sensual as to be final, supreme.’”

It seemed and seems obvious to me that readers from a diverse range of racial, gender, sexual preference and ideological positions are going to read that passage in strikingly different ways. And while we might want to discuss the merits of the different readings, to tell any of them that their reading is “wrong” seems to me profoundly arrogant. Clearly, some readings will be more attentive to the language, the nuances, the contexts of that passage than others. One thing that strikes me is the way that Birkin moves from being “white and strangely ghostly” to being “very white and indefinite” as he looks at the statue.

Some of that diversity of reading comes from having more of what Pierre Bourdieu called ‘cultural capital’. Some of it comes from what Maryanne Wolf called the Matthew-Emerson effect:

“Those who have read widely and well will have many resources to apply to what they read; those who do not will have less to bring, which, in turn, gives them less basis for inference, deduction and analogical thought.” (Reader, come home: 56)

And subject position sharpens some perceptions, some awareness of nuance, tone, implication.

All of which, together, both for individual readers and for readers as a collective enriches the text.

And as well as reading a lot one of the ways, as individual readers, we can develop this richness for ourselves is by re-reading. Our perception of a text grows and develops as we see more than on first glance, and the presence of that ‘more’ would seem to me to be a measure of the text’s – and I use the word with care – quality.

Let me give one example. It comes with necessary spoilers, so if you haven’t read Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca”; stop now. STOP. And go and read the book. And then come back to this point again.

Here’s a sentence from the opening chapter’s description of the [un-named] narrator’s dream of travelling down the drive to Manderley.

A lilac had mated with a copper beech, and to bind them yet more closely to one another the malevolent ivy, always an enemy to grace, had thrown her tendrils about the pair and made them prisoners.

First time through I suspect that, unless we are especially alert to the verb ‘mated’, we read that as simple description. And, applying the Matthew-Emerson Effect, that alertness is probably sharpened by having read more of Du Maurier’s books and encountered her abiding concern with the power of human relations.

Now, second time. We’ve read to the end, we know what happens. Now that sentence reads like a description of the triadic relationship between the narrator, Rebecca and Max. But if it is, who is which plant? The obvious version is that the narrator is the lilac, Max the copper beech, and Rebecca the malevolent ivy. That makes sense because Rebecca – or at least her murder – does bind the two of them more closely together. Hang on, though. There’s that slippery subordinate clause – “always an enemy to grace”. Whatever else we ‘know’ about Rebecca (and let’s leave aside that she didn’t get to plead her case before us until Sally Beauman’s triumphant “Rebecca’s tale”), that phrase just doesn’t fit.

So, a third reading. That subordinate clause is nagging away and, as it does, it starts to shift the focus of our attention to another triadic relationship in the text. That between the narrator, Rebecca, and Mrs Danvers. The latter is a much better – and graceless – candidate for the role of the malevolent ivy and she certainly binds the narrator and Rebecca closely to one another. But this in turn raises a whole new set of questions about the sexual and erotic relationships that the book can barely articulate, though they have become more present to later generations of readers.

The possibilities that re-reading this sentence, and thinking about its place and relationship to the rest of the novel, is a small example of the ways in which this activity develops our engagement with a text.

The relevance of this to “Ulysses”? I’ll get to this in greater detail in the next blog, but for now I’ll finish by saying that Joyce worked – and worked hard – at incorporating his own and other people’s richness and complexity into the writing of the novel. With, I think, the purpose of encouraging our repeated returning.

Thanks to Laura Kapfer @kapfii for making this photo available freely on Unsplash 🎁

1 thought

  1. This is very good , and yes, makes me reread the piece. It shows how senseless (literally) it is to ‘do’ a book or consume it to say ‘been there.’ Great literature defies this.

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