“A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.”
– Robertson Davies
Our memories of events are distorted each time we recall them. We do not necessarily recall the original event itself, but our previous recollection of it, the line between original and invented details blurring as the memory continuously evolves. Our recall of books is similarly affected: when recalling a book, we might remember the plot, the characters, or flashes of emotion and thought; we experience seemingly perfect recall of certain scenes and barely a shred of others. Our brains fill the gaps and mash together whatever scraps of memory remain, creating a subtly distorted narrative each time we recall a book. In this sense, our memories of books are like the memories of our lives, with meaning and significance attributed retrospectively, and shaped to fit the stories we tell.
This concept is cleverly captured by Frank Kerkmode in the essay Palaces of Memory, itself a retelling of Barrett J. Mandel’s observations on the autobiography of Edmund Gosse. In this episode, a young Gosse is invited to a party, but his father, a strict and deeply religious man, wants his son to refuse the invitation, ordering him to pray to the Lord for guidance. The boy gives a daring answer, telling his father “the Lord says I may go to the party”, and prompting a furious reaction. This exchange is portrayed in the autobiography as an act of rebellion, and as a defining moment of Gosse’s character.
But as both Mandel and Kerkmode point out, Gosse the adult, Gosse the writer, looking back upon his youth and marking this episode as a significant one, does so with an adult’s knowledge of his father, religion, and rebellion. He had no way of knowing his father’s thoughts, and no way of comprehending the significance of the episode at the time. The memories that he chose to write about in his autobiography have been retold, reworked and meticulously edited. Here, an episode is selected for the message it sends about the boy in the story, and the adult that he becomes.
As we retell stories and live new experiences, our perceptions of the world change in subtle ways, and so too do our interpretations of books. We may feel, like the readers in Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, that each rereading of a book is unpredictable; we are sometimes drawn deeper and sometimes pulled further away:
“I, too, feel the need to reread the books I have already read,” a third reader says, “but at every rereading I seem to be reading a new book, for the first time. Is it I who keep changing and seeing new things of which I was not previously aware? Or is reading a construction that assumes form, assembling a great number of variables, and therefore something that cannot be repeated twice according to the same pattern? Every time I seek to relive the emotion of a previous reading, I experience different and unexpected impressions, and do not find again those of before. At certain moments it seems to me that between one reading and the next there is a progression: in the sense, for example, of penetrating further into the spirit of the text, or of increasing my critical detachment. At other moments, on the contrary, I seem to retain the memory of the readings of a single book one next to another, enthusiastic or cold or hostile, scattered in time without a perspective, without a thread that ties them together. The conclusion I have reached is that reading is an operation without object; or that its true object is itself. The book is an accessory aid, or even a pretext.”
Reading, to the speaker above, is a process with a varied outcome. Listen to the same piece of music fifty times and your impressions will inevitably change; dream fifty times and you will probably meet a different cast of characters every night. Reading is a way of understanding the worlds of others, and discovering our reactions to those worlds. Rereading, then, is a chance to revisit those worlds, and reflect on the impressions we once had. Can such impressions remain the same, or are they inevitably coloured by the changing reader?
The desire to recapture a moment of the past is understandable in a world that is constantly in flux. For the nameless protagonist of Remainder, a novel by Tom McCarthy, re-enacting every excruciating detail of past events becomes an obsession. From repeatedly buying coffee from the same place to relive the interaction, to buying an entire apartment complex and filling it with actors to recreate a bizarre memory, the protagonist becomes increasingly consumed by his projects, and the moments of repetition that truly succeed become almost transcendental, pulling him into a state of giddy bliss. But at the same time, there is a sense of meaningless to the protagonist’s pursuits. The targets of the re-enactment are often mundane and arbitrary, the kind of actions that happen countless times on a daily basis. The protagonist, despite pouring his entire being into the perfect execution of his re-enactments, acknowledges their transitory nature:
“They’d never stopped happening, intermittently, everywhere, and our repetition of them here in Chiswick on the sunny autumn afternoon was no more than an echo – an echo of an echo of an echo, like the vague memory of a football being kicked against a wall somewhere by some boy, once, long after the original boy had been forgotten, faded, gone, replaced by countless boys kicking footballs against walls in every street of ever city.”
If our actions are the echoes of the countless times they have been repeated in the past, then perhaps our memories are a way of sifting through the echoes to create structure, chords and melody. Our memories of books, crafted from the contents of our imagination, are shaped by our impressions of the moment. Rereading provides us with a path back through our memories and another chance at composition.
This recomposition of memory makes rereading a reflective and personal process, one that generates a fresh perspective on the books we read, and at the same time, provides a fascinating window into how we, as readers, have changed. My reactions to Remainder were markedly different with each reading. When reading the book for the first time, I was drawn to the originality of the premise, but was bored by the tediously long descriptions. When reading the book for the second time, I found myself strangely compelled by those very same descriptions, and the moments of blissful re-enactment experienced by the protagonist seemed to take on some strange, surreal significance. I found myself questioning why I had decided to reread the book in the first place, and was struck by the absurdity of choosing to do so with a book centred around reliving the mundane moments of the past.
There are many reasons to reread a book – to relive the original experience, to experience the same story from a new perspective, or, like the protagonist of Remainder, to find meaning through the very act of repetition. The insight that rereading affords is not immediately obvious; like the recall of memory itself, it is sometimes subtle and sometimes profound, and can manifest as a moment of pure lucidity, or as a faint, distant echo. Our imperfect recall of the past is one of the reasons that memory holds such fascination over us. Our memories are fragile, they fade with time and imperfectly capture events, and they are constantly being rewritten and altered throughout our lives. Rereading is a tool for reconnecting with our memories of books, and is a powerful way of rediscovering the past, one that benefits from the subtle change in character that is the natural consequence of age and experience.
Bridge, D. J., & Paller, K. A. (2012). Neural correlates of reactivation and retrieval-induced distortion. Journal of Neuroscience, 32(35), 12144-12151.
Calvino, I. (1981). If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Kermode, F. (2001). Palaces of memory. Index on censorship, 30(1), 87-96.
Mandel, B. J. (1980). Full of life now. Autobiography: Essays theoretical and critical, 49-72.
McCarthy, T. (2007). Remainder. Vintage.