"Each Year I Understood More Songs": On Rereading

I have a rule of thumb, relatively recent and still evolving, that any book I haven’t read for five years reverts to being a book I haven’t read. This doesn’t necessarily mean I have to revisit it, of course, or I’d never get anywhere—just that I need to stop relying on my memory alone. This idea started to germinate when in my mid-twenties I found myself revisiting books I’d read, even loved, early in college and realizing my memories were…not always wrong, but almost always incomplete. Tastes change, of course, particularly in the transition between adolescence and adulthood. Some books (like Franzen’s The Corrections) I found on rereading to be not as unimpeachable as I’d thought at eighteen. Other books were still lovely, but more complexly so than I’d been capable of seeing on my first encounter. (This has happened for me with nearly all of Michael Chabon’s fiction, which as a teenager I found accessible and profound, but which has taken on a whole multiverse of extra dimensions as I’ve reread more recently.)

The novels that made me realize this reread rule was truly necessary will come as no surprise—they’re part of an unofficial subgenre that a grad school classmate called “Books We Read Too Young.” The Great Gatsby. The Catcher in the Rye. To Kill a Mockingbird. Things we assign to children and teenagers either because they’re about children and teenagers, or because they’re written in accessible prose, or because they’re short and teachers already have too much to cover in a single school year. I haven’t yet revisited everything I was assigned in high school, but I’m sure I would/will have the same experience with Heart of Darkness, Death of a Salesman, or any of the rest. It’s a one-two punch of misunderstanding—there were the nuances that flew high over my teenage head, because my world was still too simple; they were spectra I couldn’t see. (I thought Nick Carraway was a completely pointless character. I thought Holden Caulfield was just a whiner.) Relatedly—and I’m not proud of this, because age is no excuse—the second punch: it turns out often that huge chunks of the plots of these books escaped me the first time. I reread The Catcher in the Rye a few years ago for the first time since high school and was surprised to learn that Holden’s brother had died. I had either forgotten or missed it the first time. Either option is, of course, insane. In the case of Gatsby, I had forgotten/missed in my first reading more or less everything about Nick except that he existed and watched Gatsby do things, starting with his Midwest origins and moving fully through the end of the book. Small wonder I thought he was pointless—but I made him that way, not Fitzgerald.

This basic confusion over plots was, hopefully, a matter of my age on first reading. (Fingers crossed that I’m not going to move through the rest of my life shedding books wholesale from memory every few years.) But as contexts and readers change, books functionally do as well—even if on a reread I’m not picking up on something dramatically, wholly new (to me), I’m still almost certain to find that a book is differently compelling, based on where I am, how much more I can relate to, when I read it. (As Clare Barron says in I’ll Never Love Again, of her mid-twenties, “Each year I understood more songs.”) This example is either too saccharine or just the opposite, but one of the major shifts of my life thus far has been the chilling transition from being predictably overjoyed every Christmas Eve when George Bailey stays to save Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life, to suddenly finding myself wishing he’d gotten out of there and had the life he actually wanted. (I still love the movie, and in fact as I settle down and approach the end of the chaotic era that is one’s twenties, I’m coming back around. Gradually.)

High, low, or middlebrow—if any of those distinctions are real—revisiting things matters. Context changes everything, and so your own brain allows for effectively new adaptations of your favorite (or least favorite) works every several years, if not more frequently. This is on my mind because last week I saw The Crucible on Broadway, and found it had much more intense, disturbing, and recognizable things to say about the world than I remembered from once seeing my fourteen-year-old classmates perform it in drama club. (Go figure.) And it wasn't simply better than I remembered, but different, stranger, more complex in a way that's maybe too interesting to be valued good or bad. 

I've gotten solidly behind the idea of regular rereading as beneficial, maybe necessary, for any avid student of literature. To be honest, I'm still resistant to what I suspect may be the next step: making time to revisit one's own efforts as a writer, from three or five or ten years in the past, to see what new lessons—about the author's evolution, style, influences, obsessions hangups, tics—are waiting to be discovered. I'm not that brave yet, but I suspect I'll be glad when I finally work up the courage.