Thursday, June 19, 2014

`But for a Certain Surprisingness'

Mike Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti cites a shrewd insight by C.S. Lewis in his 1947 essay “Of Stories” (Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, 1967): 

“An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare's Sonnets: but what can you do with a man who says he `has read’ them, meaning he has read them once, and thinks that this settles the matter?” 

We all know readers who treat books, even great books, like one-night stands. Close the covers and it’s time to move on. This makes sense, of course, if one is reading trash. Who rereads Stephen King or Donald Barthelme, which begs another question: Who reads Stephen King or Donald Barthelme? No, a “literary man,” in Lewis’ estimation, pledges his troth to the best books, making him a sort of serial monogamist, though seasoned readers are well known for being generous with their loyalties. Two sentences later, Lewis says excitement “must disappear” from subsequent readings, and here I think he’s mistaken. As a reader and a human being, with deepening maturity and a fallible memory, I change between readings. The man reading Macbeth today is not the book-drunk thirteen-year-old who read it for the first time, nor the eighteen-year-old English major, and so forth. Good books grow at least as fast as we do, often faster. Lewis writes: “You cannot, except at the first reading, be really curious about what happened,” but then clarifies his meaning: “The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain surprisingness.” 

Lewis is writing of stories, of plots with suspense and narrative pull. Once we know the captain and crew of the Pequod go down with the ship, and only one “did survive the wreck,” do we put away Moby-Dick and never return? A first reading is a rehearsal; the show is the rest of your life with the book. Nabokov in Lectures on Literature (1980) put it like this: “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” Here’s an example: A book I keep in almost constant rotation is The Anatomy of Melancholy. By its rambling, learned, frequently rewritten, ever-expanded, stuff-it-all-in nature, Burton’s treatise is built for rereading. Straight through, I’ve read it three times. More often I dip into it  bibliomanically, for amusement and morale-boosting. For a first-time reader intimidated by the bulk of the Anatomy and its Latin-infused prose, I suggest the slender Burton on Melancholy (Hesperus Press, 2013), a 108-page selection edited by Nicholas Robins. He uses the 1927 edition edited by Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith, with all the Latin translated. For a book ostensibly about the madness of those afflicted with “black bile,” Robins writes in his introduction, “there is nothing insane about the voice that carries us through [the author’s] long journey—nothing saner or more reasonable; more personable or personal.” 

Lewis concludes “On Stories” like this: “In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive. Whether in real life there is any doctor who can teach us how to do it, so that at least either the meshes will become fine enough to hold the bird, or we be so changed that we can throw our nets away and follow the bird to its own country, is not a question for this essay. But I think it is sometimes done—or very, very nearly done—in stories. I believe the effort to be well worth making.” 

Pleasingly, Burton reports that some sportsmen take Lewis’ metaphor quite literally and find relief from melancholy in fowling and capturing birds in nets. In a section titled “Exercise Rectified of Body and Mind,” he writes: 

“Fowling is more troublesome, but all out as delightsome to some sorts of men, be it with guns, lime, nets, glades, gins, strings, baits, pitfalls, pipes, calls, stalking-horses, setting-dogs, decoy-ducks, &c., or otherwise. Some much delight to take larks with day-nets, small birds with chaff-nets, plovers, partridge, herons, snipe, &c.”

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