RE-READING: THE BOTTOMLESS PIT

As I age I understand less and less the mechanism by which some stories are instantly embedded in our brains and other pass through leaving no trace. I keep lists of the books that I read and the films that I see like Japanese tourists who take photos of everything to fix the memories of their sightseeing. I imagine that, as happens to me, they must be often mystified looking at pictures of places they don’t remember having seen at all.

My spotty memory might be also conditioned by the quantity of stories I consume –I have the feeling that my brain can only store so many (the hard disk capacity seems limited) and that as more come in, a selective process is triggered by which the less relevant to me are forgotten (or filed away in a corner I can’t access). Perhaps assuming that total recall of stories will work after years or decades is simply unrealistic.

Re-reading (or re-seeing in the case of films) is, obviously, crucial to fix some plots in our memories. I find that the third re-reading is the one after which the text stays put. I also find, however, that there is a very tricky aspect to re-reading: the text never stays the same. Actually, the more one reads the more blurry it becomes (when will I be done with Wuthering Heights, I wonder?)

In Film Adaptation theory one of the basic tenets is that we, adult human beings, prefer being retold stories we enjoy in slightly different ways –kids, as we know, like exact verbatim repetitions. This is why even readers who already know a particular story will pay to see the screen adaptation. Re-reading is, arguably, something we tend to avoid, or something we postpone for years and even decades after the original experience, which in practice means that the second reading is almost brand new.

We, teachers and researchers of Literature, are in quite a different position for we need to re-read frequently, sometimes once a year, the texts we teach. To this we add the re-readings for research, either of a single volume or of the complete works of an author (my re-reading this summer Iain M. Banks’ SF). I’m now re-reading the Harry Potter series for the third time around, wondering whether there will be a fourth time, hence this post.

The text, I was saying, never stays the same. Sometimes to our embarrassment. It’s taken me four readings of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to realise that Gilbert’s narrative, although produced twenty years after the events, offers not a single comment on that past from the perspective of the present (in hindsight). My students were particularly interested in chapter 14, in which Gilbert attacks Frederick Lawrence in a fit of jealousy and justifies at least three times his appalling action. I never realised until last week that he does so without a single shred of remorse, not even twenty years after the events –also that he tells his good friend Halford what he’s never told his wife. Did Anne Brontë want exactly this?

I can start using metaphors here: novels (and films) are, as Henry James noted, baggy monster and they sprout tentacles all the time. Or, reading is peeling the layers of a gigantic onion (with no centre, let’s not forget we’re post post-modern). Re-reading is unveiling in the literal sense of taking off what prevents you from fully seeing (until the next veil is noticed). Or treading treacle that becomes less viscous. Re-reading is also, of course, facing again events we know very well but that we want to enjoy this time in the full knowledge of what is coming (Ada and Inman’s meeting in Cold Mountain comes to mind). Or that we dread –yes, Sirius Black’s death. There are only so many times one can mourn a character before starting to hate the author.

Logically, novels have too many words for us to retain them integrally in our memories, films too many images. Re-reading (or re-seeing) I’m puzzled by how some passages stick out immediately and with others it is as if they never existed to begin with. Also by how at a different times it is the other way round –this is why we never stop making discoveries that for other readers are obvious. Good research consists, yes, of coming up with the new angles about the text that change other (or most) readers’ perceptions.

I really wanted to write about what happens to emotion in re-reading. Why I cry myself silly every time I see Baz Luhrman’s film version of Romeo and Juliet, although I know very well what’s coming –and I don’t buy this tragic view of love! Why I cringe every time Marlow comes across Kurtz on all fours and tells him he will be lost –and I don’t even believe we have souls! But then emotion seems to be a dirty word in literary criticism. Or I’m in the grip of emotion too big to make sense of it today, though I’m trying.

So much we don’t know about how we read…

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