PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Why Return to a Text We've Already Finished? On Rereading'

Scholar Patricia Meyer Spacks takes the time to revisit some old favorites, questioning the benefits and changes in perspective that come from rereading a text.

On Rereading

Publisher: Belknap
Length: 282 pages
Author: Patricia Meyer Spacks
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-11

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.