Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 13 Jun 2016

On rereading

From about 2003 to 2010 or so, because I was obsessed with photography and spent every moment I could spare taking or looking at photographs I had much less time than usual for reading. Nonetheless, I continued to buy books as promiscuously as ever during this period and consequently had a vast backlog to catch up on. I decided that for a while I would buy as few new books as possible and concentrate instead on reading the books I already owned.

At around the same time Susan Hill published a book called Howards End is on the Landing: A year of reading from home, in which she describes a precisely similar exercise of reading only books she already had in her library. In any other circumstances, Susan Hill (Anglican, conservative, upper-middle class) is not someone I would normally turn to for guidance, but her book – or perhaps more accurately, the idea her book explored – suggested to me that reading only (or mainly) the books I already had could be a more purposeful undertaking than simply ‘clearing the backlog’.

Over a couple of years I made significant inroads into the unread books and then turned – by logical extension, it now seems – to rereading.

It was almost by accident, then, that I discovered that a lifetime’s reading does count for something and that a book first read twenty or thirty years ago in ignorance – without context, in isolation, unsituated, as it were – will sometimes offer a richly rewarding experience when revisited many years later. The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. The book now exists in a different time and one brings to it not just accrued reading experience, but also life-experience. Books do change, but nowhere near as much as readers do and the book one read with incomprehension at twenty is, at fifty, sixty, seventy, being read by a different person.

Not all books, of course, are equal to this kind of scrutiny. In some respects, this is part of the fun – it's the gamble that lends rereading a certain frisson, and this is especially the case with books one read when young and was especially influenced by. It is even more the case if, like me, you try and operate an in-out rereading rule: if a book passes muster on rereading, I keep it; if it doesn’t, it goes – and I try (stupidly, many will think) to stick to this irrespective of how attached I may be to the book-as-object. Unless, that is, I am absolutely convinced that the fault lies with me rather than with the book and that with time and application I will come to appreciate it. In such cases, I keep it and hope that one day I will be equal to the task of reading it.

Sometimes, rereading – gratifyingly – will confirm our early judgement. For instance, I still find Greene’s Brighton Rock contrived, hysterical in tone and overloaded with Catholic symbolism, bogged down by its own gravity. Travels With My Aunt would have been better had it never been written. (Greene perhaps didn’t realise that he was already funny enough and didn’t need to try and write a ‘comic novel’.) The Quiet American remains an unparalleled masterpiece.

Rereading War and Peace one finds it is not just a great novel, but that the act of reading it – the time it takes, when and where and how you read it – becomes part of the experience. Rereading several Zola novels I didn’t just enjoy them; for the first time I felt I understood what it was Zola was trying to do and why his welding together of human drama and social analysis was so shocking to his contemporaries. He described the new – social and economic forces, wealth and impoverishment, art, consumerism – as it was happening. He creates the later decades of the nineteenth century before your eyes and lays bare the forces shaping that period.

But not all rereadings are so fortunate. Rereading will sometimes reveal a book’s limitations as well as its richness, its flaws and weaknesses as well as its strengths. But none of this necessarily means disappointment. It is about reaching a better understanding of a book – how it works, why it works, why it works for you, or why it once worked but does no longer.

It must also be acknowledged, however, that the rereading and reassessment of books does also have another rather sobering purpose. It really is a case of ‘so many books, so little time’. I’ve always understood that this is the case, but when I was younger it drove me ever onwards towards the new – to books I didn’t know, writers I had barely heard of, whole literary movements I could scarcely begin to grasp. Now it does the opposite – it drives me to search for what really matters, for the books that are durable, the books that are capable of offering continuing satisfaction and consolation over not just one but many rereadings.

I reread from a pressing sense of diminishing time, then, but also as an act of optimism – in the hope of finding a writer triumphing despite the odds, in the hope that exceptional pleasures will be renewed and deepened, and – best of all – in the hope that I will find my personal ignorance mysteriously dispelled.

Happy rereading, everyone.

Alun Severn

June 2016


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