November 2, 2011

When we reread a book, we can "behave towards" it the way we behave towards a painting.

Think about why rereading a book is better than reading it the first time.
When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.

34 comments:

cassandra lite said...

"Are rereadings better than readings?" Not when it's an insipid NYer piece like that.

sydney said...

Not when it's an insipid NYer piece like that.

Heh. But a good book is better the second or third time around. You really do get appreciate the way it is put together better. By the same token, a mediocre book may seem good the first time it is read, but the flaws are more apparent the second time.

EDH said...

When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting.

"I'm a victim of coycumstance."

DADvocate said...

A book is not a painting and shouldn't be treated as a painting. Appreciate the art form for what it is. If a book must be read it twice to "appreciate" it, it's a failure.

The only books I've read twice are non-fiction, or read very far apart in time and I wanted to refresh my memory of its details (or school required it).

t-man said...

It depends upon the book, but you cannot truly appreciate any Nabokov book reading it once. I've read Pale Fire 4 times, and each reading I find something new that astounds me.

edutcher said...

I agree to a point, but one of the more frustrating things in rereading is to hunt for a specific piece or phrase and you just can't find it.

Or is that just age?

Irene said...

I feel this way about Love in the Time of Cholera.

(And old photos, which sometimes feel like books with layered meanings.)

traditionalguy said...

Yes, absolutely.The first read is entertaining but requires following the story line like a mystery book.

But the second and third reads are for enjoying the amazing use of the words by a great creator of language used to tell the story.

You cannot beat John Steinbeck's work...well maybe Catch 22.

cassandra lite said...

Just yesterday, in fact, I found myself looking at a DVD that had been converted from an old VHS of me looking at Polaroids of myself reading the the New York Times from 1988. I got so much more of it than I ever had.

Anga2010 said...

When I read a new book I open it up to the middle to see if it's intersting. If I find my eyes having difficulty reading that particular passage, I skip a few chapters forward (or sometimes backward) to see if it becomes interesting.
If the time alloted in my library becomes exceeded before I can find something interesting to read in the book then I'll put it down for a few days and try it again later.

William said...

When I was young, there were certain favorite books that I reread a lot. David Copperfield, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and War and Peace. There was a fairy tale comfort in watching the characters work out their fate, and seeing how it happened the same way every time. It was a godlike state to be immersed in the narrative while at the same time being able to foretell what would happen next....Also, although the characters and their events are unchanging, one's response to these characters change as you move through life.....There are other books like Sister Carrie and Last Exit to Brooklyn that whatever their merit no sane man should read twice.

cassandra lite said...

I finally got around to rereading Althouse's post on this subject, and for the first time I wonder whether I behave or misbehave towards a painting.

Peter Hoh said...

I read The Power and The Glory for a summer class in college. Rushed, and not enjoyable.

A few years later, I got to read it again. Much better experience.

Had a favorite college teacher who said that when one reaches a certain age, one should forgo new books and focus exclusively on re-reading old ones.

No Name said...

Have read Moby Dick twice- I find Ahab's focused hatred fascinating and inspiring. And I've read Desert Solitaire and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas each more times than I can count. Tried to re-read Atlas Shrugged, then considered my life expectancy and put it back on the shelf. Would like to re-read Wuthering heights and get a handle on who married who and adopted which and ended up with what last name.

cassandra lite said...

"Think about why rereading a book is better than reading it the first time." Have now re-reread Althouse's post and am struck by her powerful suggestion, implicit in the elegant phrasing, that indeed rereading is better than reading. Q.E.D.

cassandra lite said...

Have just now re-knocked off The Sign of the Four. So obvious what was going to happen. Next up: Ten Little Indians.

Beta Rube said...

Thanks for the reminder Peter. I have read and enjoyed that book more than once, but probably not for twenty years now.

Next time I am at half price books, I'll look around for some Manchester.

Gee, I just re-read your post and realized I am thinking of The Glory and the Dream.

I haven't read the Greene,maybe I will now that you bring it up.

Time for bed.

d-day said...

Who reads a book like that? Left to right, word by word? Proficient readers tend to first absorb the shape of paragraphs and sentences, then pick out significant words and fill in necessary blanks. Don't believe me? Try reading a book with a ruler to keep your place -- it's a completely different and jarring experience.

WV = "betwead" Seems appropriate.

Coketown said...

This is an example of being intelligent to the point of retardation. The book being considered is by a woman of impeccable credentials, but she doesn't seem to grasp that visual art like paintings and photographs are the only media that work independent of time. In literature and music, most of a work's beauty is in its structure and structure is a consequence of time. Imagine a concerto with all notes played at once!

A story in itself has no artistic qualities. Art comes from how the story is told--in the language, its rhythm, its structure. This fact cannot be escaped no matter how many times one reads it; no number of readings will turn a novel into a painting.

But I do love rereading! I rarely do it all the way through, though. I'll open to a random passage and read until I tire of it.

rcommal said...

Thank God no one told me this 47-ish years ago:

...the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, ...

Ralph L said...

As Maugham said about a certain class of Victorians, I need a helpful title to appreciate a painting.

I've read Pride & Prejudice at least a dozen times in 20 years. It'll stand a few more. I will soon need a large type copy. Fuck bifocals.

Nisha said...

Nice Posting

Pink Lotus

Michael said...

We do not "reread" books anymore than we "rehear" symphonies or "relook" at paintings or "rescrew" our lovers. We repeat these activities and each time we do the experience is unique even if the act itself is familiar and their are echoes of our former efforts. Familiarity breeds knowldege and joy and comfort and an easy laziness that rewards differently, perhaps better.

ricpic said...

The reason people can "do" a museum in one day is precisely because they don't read a painting. To really look at a painting does involve time and does involve looking at it until you see it, then going away, coming back and seeing it, a different element in it, again. Which is why those who actually see paintings go into a museum, look at one or two paintings and leave having exhausted their capacity to see.

prairie wind said...

Had a favorite college teacher who said that when one reaches a certain age, one should forgo new books and focus exclusively on re-reading old ones.

I must be at that age, then. Most of my reading is rereading. Childhood books are especially fun. Heidi, Bambi, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, the Potter series. Will our children reread the children's lit of their time (Rick Riordan comes to mind) with the same enjoyment in 30 years? Or has children's lit changed? The HP books stand on their own, outside of time.

I reread everything, though, not just the childhood stuff. Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop is more beautiful each time, so is My Antonia. Santmyer's And Ladies of the Club gets pulled out every few years and, every time, I am sad to finish it.

knox said...

I am a huge re-reader and always have been. I have probably 20 titles that I read again every few years. Lonesome Dove, Middlemarch, The Secret History, Watership Down, even Bridget Jones's Diary.

I am currently into gothic novels. The Woman in White, Dracula, and now Lady Audley's Secret.

I thought it was interesting that Mona Simpson revealed in her eulogy for Steve Jobs that all the editors she worked with really preferred great stories like Charles Dickens.

Shanna said...

But I do love rereading! I rarely do it all the way through, though. I'll open to a random passage and read until I tire of it.

I cannot imagine doing this. It takes a truly terrible book to make me stop reading at the midpoint. Even if it’s terrible and I have to skim large scenes, I want to know what happens. (and reading the last chapter doesn’t work for me either).

I do love re-reading books, though, but that still makes it nothing like a painting. It is a different experience to read the beginning when you know how something ends.

knox, I bought the woman in white years ago on recommendation but haven't read it yet. I have been on my kindle so much, my physical books are getting dusty. But I may pick it up when I finish the next two books I'm working on.

Shanna said...

The Secret Garden

I rebought this a few years ago and read it. That book is lovely.

Oligonicella said...

"Think about why rereading a book is better than reading it the first time."

Some people think it is, yet others think it isn't. The activity itself is neither better nor worse the first, second or any subsequent time.

In other words, "Think about why something I believe is preferable."

Oligonicella said...

Peter Hoh --

"Had a favorite college teacher who said that when one reaches a certain age, one should forgo new books and focus exclusively on re-reading old ones."

A man ossified before death.

Bruce Gee said...

I've reread Patrick O'Brien's series four times, and will probably go once or twice more. The Russians are definitely a rereading bunch: Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers...too dense for a once over.
I agree with the comment about rereading being like revisiting old photos. One looks at these things in a different light as one ages. I just reread CIDER HOUSE RULES by John Irvin. I loved it when I read it 20 some years ago and marvelled at it this time around.

knox said...

Shanna,

The Woman in White is free on kindle! It has two of the best characters I've ever encountered in fiction: Marion Halcombe is an awesome heroine and Count Fosco is a creepy but charming villain. The pacing is slow, but I found it very absorbing.

Diana Rasner said...

@bruce

I try to limit myself from rereading the Patrick O'Brien series because those books spoil me for others.

ZorroPrimo said...

I think Nabokov also said something like "Readers read, but writers re-read." You can enjoy a book by reading it, but you must re-read it to understand its architecture.