If every reading is a mis-reading, then to re-read a book allows you the opportunity to mis-read it in new ways or to discover how you mis-read it the first time.
Over the past month I re-read four books, and of the first readings the only one which I didn’t really enjoy was Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk. The Vegetarian was one of my books of last year, and How To Be Both was my favourite book of 2015. I had read both Wise Children and Hot Milk in April.
The first question is, what stayed the same? I continued to find Wise Children brilliantly written, even when I new the jokes were coming. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian still haunts me and, for me, the key theme of agency and free will still felt relevant. Perhaps because it had been some time since I’d read it first there were inevitably elements that I didn’t recall, which were re-freshened on the second reading.
The next questions is what got better? Re-reading Hot Milk developed the themes and patterns which I knew were there at the first reading, but being able to bring my recent memory of the end of book to parts at the beginning helped me to better appreciate it.
That leaves only How To Be Both. In 2015 I loved this book, the mystery and the subsequent discovery. When I finished it the first time I almost immediately re-read it to better understand what it was that had happened and how I should have seen the story grow. However, for this re-reading it felt flat, that the motions and movements were there, but the mystery had disappeared. There were points that I remembered the buzz of the first reading, and a sense of excitement and adventure would wash over me, but as I got further into they disappeared.
This seems unusual. The book was acclaimed on it’s publication and was considered for, and won, many awards so it must be able to withstand the scrutiny of being re-read, but for me, on this occasion it didn’t work. Because this fall feels so great I may consider re-reading it for a third time to not better grasp the story or the themes, but to try to understand my experience as a reader.
To re-read these books has been an interesting experience as a reader. The two more recently read books were either re-assured or enhanced by the second reading. One of the others remained high in my opinion and one seems to have dropped. As I said before I think there is much to be said for re-reading books, re-digesting them. The original suggestion that each reading is a mis-reading required you to look at the context and background to other literature which came before the work being looked at, so that you might better grapple with it. For me, the re-reading will help better understand the context of other books that I will read, will add depth to their surroundings, perhaps to pull at the threads that tie them together and see where that leads.
I’m a regular follower of the Backlisted Podcast which reviews old books the hosts and their guests think should be re-read. With a well stocked Oxfam in Reading I was lucky to get hold of The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy, which tells of the events at a costume party on New Years Eve, and the attraction between various characters.
As Wise Children was funny on almost every page, The Snow Ball is charged with eroticism throughout and tantalising to read.