[16 February 2012]
We live in an age that values novelty and surprise in our entertainment. Reviews are plastered with “spoiler alerts” and warnings that plot details lie within, an acknowledgement that audiences would like to approach a piece of entertainment knowing as little as possible about what is to come. In a time where the number of options available to the consumer is approaching infinity, one could make the case that art itself has become more disposable. Especially when divorced from its former physical trappings, media is easier to toss aside when the next thing comes along. One can easily bounce from, say, book to book without stopping to reflect or consider what just happened. After all, there’s so much else to read!
From this respective, Patricia Meyer Spacks’ book On Rereading might strike one as a bit quaint for the 21st century. Spacks’ tastes are highbrow, her method of reading analytic to the point of pedantry. So it’s both refreshing and slightly anachronistic to read this book, and follow a reader who experiences things in such a way. Rather than pursuing the new and pushing forward, Spacks (a noted literary professor with decades of scholarship behind her) is content to take the time to re-explore ground she has already tread, returning to both old favorites and books that confounded her upon on initial reading. Some of the books in On Rereading are works Spacks has taught dozens of times, while others are nearly-forgotten texts that struck a specific chord during her childhood. With each, she tries to ascertain what, exactly, a rereading brings to the table. Why return to a text we’ve already finished?
Spacks offers several reasons for her desire to constantly revisit what she’s already read. Some of the reasons are clichés, but some are also intensely personal. The book is divided into different sections based on what kind of rereading Spacks is doing—rereading childhood favorites, rereading for professional reasons, rereading for continued pleasure—and these chapters succeed or fail largely based on how interesting Spacks’ reasons are for her rereading.
For example, the chapter in which Spacks explores Alice in Wonderland, a favorite of her childhood, is uniformly excellent. She successfully argues that returning to such a work with older eyes leads to an re-examination of plot and characters, and thus a re-examination of one’s self. Reading is nothing if not a personal endeavor, with plenty of subjective memories attached to the experience, and Spacks is able to explore her youthful love of Alice in Wonderland to discuss both who she was as a child and who she is now. Alice in Wonderland might be targeted toward children, but Spacks is able to demonstrate how an adult rereading causes one to reflect on what sort of things entertain us at different times in our lives, leading to a kind of forced self-assessment of one’s aesthetic tastes.
Some books might necessitate a reading at a certain point in life. Spacks thinks that Lucky Jim, a satiric novel on the hypocrisies of higher education, is one that works best for a young professional at the beginning of his or her career. However, Lucky Jim did not appeal to Spacks as an older woman. While Alice in Wonderland might have enduring, universal appeal, able to offer delights to both children and adults, books like Lucky Jim and Catcher in the Rye work best as texts for a certain demographic.
These chapters on Spacks’ reassessment of her own tastes are quite interesting, although at times a little too personal to really connect with. Yet they function better than some other chapters in which Spacks merely reiterates arguments that we’ve all heard before. Certain books reflect certain political climates (such as the host of books addressing Communism during the Cold War), but is this really a new observation? Apart from her own experience, Spacks has more difficult time expressing why a book does (or doesn’t) have an enduring, universal value. There must be a reason why some classics are still required reading even hundreds of years later, but Spacks’ book is too personal, too inward-looking, to really address the larger question of continued relevancy in literature.
This is a shame, because at times On Rereading comes tantalizingly close to making a larger sustained argument about the possibility of universally appealing literature that transcends chronological boundaries. How much of a book’s meaning comes from the author’s intention, and how much comes from the baggage that a reader brings to the table? Addressing the question, Spacks finally writes that,
“Is reading (or, for that matter, writing) ever dispassionate? Should it be? One might rather ask, can it be? It can’t. Reading and writing alike call on feeling as well as on thought. Given that fact, acts of reading and rereading produce outcomes as various and as unpredictable as human thought and emotion. Rereading without the kind of regression that ensures sameness, I find endless change.”
This is an important point, the idea that one text can produce such a multiplicity of reactions throughout history. But after touching on this point, Spacks backs away, circling around its implications without every really diving in. She is able to apply this concept in interesting ways to her own life, but is unable (or simply unwilling) to extend this to a larger literary judgment. Instead, she safely retreats to the tired old trope about the best books being the ones that reveal something about “human nature,” whatever that means.
Spacks is a distinguished literary scholar, so it’s strange that she doesn’t seem particularly inclined to stretch her personal experience into a broader argument. It also hurts the book, to some degree, that Spacks’ tastes are considerably more highbrow than those of the common reader. There were too many points in On Rereading, when I felt lost, without enough knowledge of Silas Marner or The Golden Notebook to really feel engaged with Spacks’ assessments of the books. At the same time, she seems uninterested in reading for pleasure; she takes the opportunity to offer potshots at popular authors like Dan Brown, and even apologizes for being such a fan of P.G. Wodehouse. It’s no surprise that the chapter on “Professional Rereading” is one of her strongest, as it seems she has a difficult time concentrating on reading for anything other than professional reasons.
The result is that On Rereading is a mixed bag, a collection of remarkably astute literary observations from a top-notch scholar that nonetheless never feels like more than a mishmash of personal asides, without a real sustained argument to pull everything together. The book tapers off without Spacks drawing any particularly notable conclusions from her project. That’s not to say that the questions On Rereading raises aren’t interesting. Why are we attracted to certain books at certain times in our lives? Why do we return to books we know the ending to? Can a book be reread by multiple generations, each with a different ideological context? Spacks is more than willing to ask the questions, but is hesitant to even attempt to provide the answers.