Saturday, March 10, 2007

Rereading Again

Despite what you’ve heard, aging has its consolations. Chief among them is rereading books we remember with fondness and curiosity, and return to with a sense of bittersweet anticipation. It’s a densely layered experience involving many levels of time and self. I was tempted to say its pleasures resemble those of an archaeological excavation, but that’s misleading. A dig is alien, not personal, and anything it uncovers remains inert. A reread book is an echoing hall of memories, and the very act of rereading revives them.

I have reread William Hazlitt’s 1821 essay “On Reading Old Books” for the second time in six months, and I ought to say that Hazlitt is a writer whose allure for me is always growing. I didn’t read him attentively when young so that sort of resonance isn’t there, but his language is vigorous and often unexpected, and he possesses a rare amalgam of good sense and whimsy. He makes excellent company and never is boring. Here, Hazlitt expresses what I’m trying to get at:

“In reading a book which is an old favourite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of the critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are landmarks and guides in our journey through life. They are pegs and loops on which we can hang up, or from which we can take down, at pleasure, the wardrobe of a moral imagination, the relics of our best affections, the tokens and records of our happiest hours.”

Vladimir Nabokov, too, believed in rereading. He demanded it – at least of his students and, by extension, all good readers. Lectures on Literature opens with “Good Readers and Good Writers,” an introductory lecture Nabokov delivered to his students at Cornell University. Like Henry James’ prefaces, it’s a rare discussion of fiction by a practitioner of the craft that gives pleasure:

“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.”

In this act of writing about rereading, in which I have reread a passage devoted to rereading, I’m tempted to quote reread Nabokovian gems at length. Here’s a too-brief sampler, but read the entire lecture:

“In reading, one should notice and fondle details.”

“A book, no matter what it is – a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed) – a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.”

“We all have different temperaments, and I can tell you right now that the best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one.”

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