Rereading books – the art of change

rereading booksA couple of nights ago I was sitting on the porch at my friend’s place.

The sun was gone, just like the wine we had been drinking.

So, with that particular predisposition of the soul that most often comes when the right amount of food and booze and stimulating company all happen together, we started chatting about books and writing.

My friend isn’t a writer. And he isn’t planning on becoming one any time soon.

Indeed, he is perfectly content with being a voracious reader. And of having the opportunity to chat, as often as possible, about books and the inner mechanics of a story.

Now, while we decided whether or not to help ourselves with a last glass of wine–it was a damn fine Rosso di Montalcino we were enjoying–we ended up chatting about books we had reread and found dramatically different from the first time around.

For me, this subject is a tricky one. It’s so for a couple of reasons.

First of all, I reread only a very small portion of the books I’ve already read. It’s not a matter of how much I enjoyed reading a particular book. It’s more about the number of new books I have on my to-read list. Because I’m curious. And a sucker for a new story. A more than willing sucker.

Secondly, given that my memory is quite good, more often than not, for me rereading tends to be quite a boring experience. Even if the writer’s style is egregious and now and then I find myself reading passages I had completely forgotten.

A very short reading list

This notwithstanding, I do have a list of books I ended up assessing in dramatically different ways upon rereading. The first to come to my mind are:

Cujo by Stephen King
A Summer Place by Sloan Wilson
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Upon rereading, I fell in love with Cujo especially for the way everything happening in the book seems so banal and everyday and yet pushes the story inexorably forward to its natural conclusion. Really I think this book can teach aspiring writers a lot about natural, effective story building. Just go and read it.

A Summer Place is pretty introspective. And on my first reading, at times I found it frustrating. But the truth is that I learned to appreciate introspection only once my teens were long gone. Besides, now that I know about the Fifties and the revolution of the Sixties I can appreciate the novel on an additional level. The sociological one. Probably this hasn’t to do with the literary merits of the author. Still I believe it’s an interesting aspect. Above all considering the quality of Sloane’s prose.

When I read Lolita for the first time it was only because it was one of those scandalous books. Well, I was decidedly naive back then. In a matter of few pages, I was bored out of my mind. I can’t even be sure I read the whole thing that first time.

But when I picked the book up again, some twenty years later, I realized that time really flies, and that with it we change in more profound ways we are often comfortable admitting. Even to ourselves.

In short, I believe Lolita is a masterpiece for the way Nabokov manages to bend language to suit his narrative needs. In fact, in this book he manages to be perfectly clear about any scandalous detail without ever having to resort to explicit language.

It’s like admiring an acrobat on a tightrope. A less than perfect word, the equivalent of a small misstep, would be enough to push him off the rope and make him fall to his death. Yet Nabokov goes from cover to cover, or side to side, with uncanny ability.

Go and read it.

Bad reviews? No thanks

Of course there are also books I found way less appealing on my second reading. Books I once considered masterpieces and that on rereading left me unimpressed to use an understatement.

But given we all have at our disposal millions of books to read, many of these even for free, I prefer focusing on what I like. On what makes my day a bit brighter. And let the books I liked least fade away beyond the horizon.

Change is inevitable

The fact our tastes and sensibilities change is nothing new, of course. People all over the world have known this for centuries. As Heraclitus said:

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

So, if we think of a book as a river of words, the metaphor should be perfectly clear.

I mean, read Lolita at sixteen and then try rereading it at forty. And if your assessment of the story remains the same go and see medical advice. Immediately.

The book is the same. Of course it is–at least the words. But you shouldn’t. Not really.

Put things in perspective

When I reread a book I liked a lot upon my first reading, and I gradually come to the realization that something has changed for the worse, it’s like getting lost in a familiar place. Where all things are where I remember, yet I can’t make sense of what they are for.

The experience sucks. Of course it sucks. Nobody likes having to downgrade a pleasant memory and turn it into one a lot less satisfying.

However, we should all remember that we are lucky. Both as readers and writers. In fact, if something goes wrong we can always restart from scratch. A new book. A new story. It doesn’t matter. After all we’re not skydiving.

And you? Do you ever discovered that your appreciation of a book changed drastically upon rereading? Chime in and tell me about it =)


Pictures: Geralt – Kerttu

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