I’ve been on a bit of a binge with books about reading since I watched Steve Donoghue’s Book about Books video on BookTube recently: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3DjZDZaBaQ
First, I read Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader and then Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books. I mentioned both of them in my February Reading post.
Bennett’s book is the only novel among these bookish books that I’ve been reading. It’s a look at what happens when Queen Elisabeth II turns into an avid reader. It’s short, sometimes funny, sometimes touching, also heart-warming. A kind of fantasy novel with book recommendations. I loved it.
Schwartz’s book is a look at the importance of reading in her life and whether it enriched or detracted from living life itself. Since I spend a lot of time reading, I also sometimes ask myself, am I living or am I just reading? It’s reassuring that other people also ponder such questions. I could also emphasize with the author about forgetting the books she has read (as does the author of On Rereading, see below). I’m glad that I’m not the only one who can more or less completely forget a novel or a non-fiction book after having read it once (it’s not so bad after I’ve reread it). That is, after all, why I started the blog, to have a record of the things I read and what I felt about them. The book was short, but good.
This weekend I finished On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks. I found this by accident (or rather by algorithm) on Amazon. Spacks is a retired university professor who did a year-long experiment in rereading to explore what would happen:
I will examine my repeated encounters with various books, ranging from the widely familiar to the obscure, from accessible to demanding, in order to show something of what I have learned and felt and how I have developed during a lifetime of rereading for pleasure as well as for professional reasons. The choice of specific texts is almost entirely arbitrary – purposely arbitrary. I wanted to avoid concentration on books of a single kind, to range as widely as possible among the many novels that I have read for pleasure over the years.
Patricia Meyer Spacks, On Rereading. Harvard University Press, Kindle location 222.
Would she still enjoy books she read at different points in her life? Would she find that some of the books she used to love she now can’t see the appeal of anymore? What does that say about herself? Or about the books? What is the point of rereading when there are so many books that one can never read everything? Should one waste precious reading time on rereads?
Part of my enjoyment of the book is because I have read quite a lot of the books she covers. From the Narnia books in childhood, to Jane Austen, to The Catcher in the Rye, Middlemarch, a book by Graham Greene, The Pickwick Papers… (to name just a few books and authors mentioned in the book).
Regarding the books I also read, my thoughts sometimes differed from the author’s. The Narnia books, for instance, I still love, but she feels done with them. Spacks loved The Catcher in the Rye (by Salinger) when it first came out but found it didn’t do well on rereading. I had to read Catcher at school and hated it, because I felt that Holden, the protagonist, was a super unlikeable arse (he was so annoying that I still remember him although it’s years since I’ve suffered through the novel). I’m not planning on rereading it anytime soon, probably never. Spacks reread The Pickwick Papers and liked them more than she did on her first reading (but not enough to reread them again). I liked The Pickwick Papers when I read my way through Dickens’ novels last year, but it wasn’t my favourite.
I found her discussion of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma very insightful. Next time I reread those novels, I must remember to check up on Spacks’ thoughts to see if her judgements still resonate. Some of her thoughts on books that I haven’t yet read made me consider reading them. Although Spacks was a professor of English, she doesn’t use any literary theory jargon in this book so that it is refreshingly readable. A happy mix of literary criticism, pondering about the nature of rereading and memoir. I do a lot of rereading because I remember liking books but don’t remember details. This book supplies a lot of additional reasons for rereading and shows how it can have different effects (always depending on the reader and their needs). Spacks found:
Rereading has turned out to be rich in paradox. A conservative activity that holds on to the past, it is also potentially revolutionary, overturning judgments and repudiating assumptions.
Patricia Meyer Spacks, On Rereading. Harvard University Press, Kindle location 2998.
Of the four books on reading, this one was the most brilliant. It was the only one that I couldn’t race through in one afternoon.
I found yet another book about books by Cathy Rentzenbrink: Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books. It came out last year and is a memoir coupled with lists and descriptions of books on subjects that the author enjoyed or valued in her life and that helped her through some hard times. She was a bookseller and works to promote literacy among adults, so she’s made reading her career (and, obviously, writing). She read a lot of the same books that I read in my childhood, which had me indulging in nostalgia. Later in the book our reading interests didn’t overlap as much, but who knows, maybe I’ll pick up one or the other of her recommendations. It was interesting and a good read, but it didn’t blow me away like Spacks’ book did.
Keep safe, world