Monday, October 15, 2007

The Second Time Around


Have you ever realized how much more you notice when you read a book the second time? I finished Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides about two months ago only to find it was chosen as our couples book club selection for October.

I sat down a little too late yesterday (the day of our meeting) to re-read the book and only managed to make it up to about page 175 (out of 500+ pages). But it was an entirely different experience than reading the book the first time. I was noticing all sorts of things that I completely missed the first time. This is a book that was very carefully crafted over a 9-year period with all sorts of allusions to mythology and other texts, things that might escape the first read. So I was well prepared to talk about the part in Greece or the early years in Detroit and I remembered the gist of the rest of the story. Miraculously everyone had actually finished the book and we had a very interesting discussion.

It struck me that a foreknowledge of what was going to happen completely colored how I read the book the second time around. A similar thing has happened when I read The Magus for the second time. I suppose the same thing would hold for seeing a movie subsequent times, although I am lucky to see most movies a first time.

Then I wondered what it would be like to live through certain periods or even episodes in my life a second time. Would I make the same choices, the same decisions, if I had the knowledge of what had happened the previous time? Oops – too much Harry Potter! That’s right, we don’t get to wear a Time-Turner which gives us the chance to turn back time and have another go at anything.

So instead I will just have to re-read another book. Our November book is The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. I have a vague recollection of this book, which I read for another book club several years ago.

As I get older, my memory is still good enough to register the fact that I have already read a book, but not sufficiently complete to make the second read boring.

Any thoughts about the second time around?

14 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

Some books are definitely worth a second or third (or more) read. It really depends on the book and how the author has crafted it. I think re-readable books fall into two categories: the first are the preaching to the converted type of books, where the reader is not looking for something new, but simply to reinforce or reaffirm their ideas, beliefs, knowledge, or experience. Certainly, re-reading Seneca or Marcus Aurelius falls into that category for me. The second type of re-readable books are those which are very rich and in which foreknowledge does not diminish the book, since it frees you of the need to concentrate on the major action in the book and instead enjoy the subtleties and layers you missed the first time around . You don' need to focus on the butcher with the sharpest knife, because you already know he has the warmest heart; instead you get to focus on the interplay of the stew on the stove and the curious fly.

I suppose it is a lot like life. We pass through so much of it without fully cognizant of it, since our attention is focussed elsewhere. It would be an interesting experiment to replace large swaths or peripheral people (people in shops, standing on corners, the crowd across the street) with cardboard cutouts and mannequins. I am willing to state that many people would walk the street without noticing the crowd was largely one-dimensional. Now, should this be a psychological experiment, or a modern art display?

10:20 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Richard -- It's hard to ever be fully cognizant of anything. But is definitely easier the second time around to notice more. I'm sure that those classics that you read always have something else to offer on any subsequent re-reading.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Some do, but not all. For example, rereading the Hardy Boys is hardly worthwhile (it is only worthwhile if you are interested in a cultural snapshot of the time and an exercise in formula writing). They are about as interesting reading as any of the modern popular cultural series (for example, Pokeman books that JJ likes, or Rainbow Fairy books that Tania likes).

11:45 AM  
Blogger avocadoinparadise said...

One's favorite books are always good to reread. Anything that pops into my mind occassionally on its own and provokes a small smile falls into this category.

Woman Warrior is a great book! Enjoy your reread! :)

12:58 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

I often reread books (and rewatch movies). They might not have changed in the meantime, but I have. Besides, there's so much to miss the first time through.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Ulysses said...

I agree with Richard -- there has to be enough there to have new things to discover. There has to be enough depth that it can reflect your thinking back at you in different ways. Same thing with music -- some sons are pretty, but you can only listen to them 4 or 5 times before you're done with them. Others you could play over and over again.

1:59 PM  
Blogger bozoette said...

I'll reread anything by PG Wodehouse over and over again, because I love the way he uses language. And, his books (especially the Jeeves stories) make me laugh.

2:08 PM  
Blogger Mother of Invention said...

I wonder how books and movies compare to hearing a song or piece of music a second time? There is a great deal to attend to in a piece of music to warrant a second playing, but in a book, there are so many words and interpretations, yet we play our favourite albums over and over.

I don't read or see too many books or movies twice. There are just too many things I haven't seen or read even once.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Pauline said...

After reading the comments, I won't tell anyone that I've read Gone With the WInd through at least six times or that I've seen several movies more than that (but NOT Gone With the WInd - I thought the movie was awful), or that I often play the same piece of music over and over until it becomes part of my cellular makeup. I've read certain books again after years and some I open a second time the minute I've shut the cover. I wonder what it is that causes some of us to do such things?

8:21 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Avocado -- Yeah, I remember really liking The Warrior Woman, but I just vaguely recall pieces of it. It will be fun to re-read it.

Kristin -- You raise an interesting point about the time between readings. There was a period of 30 years in between my readings of The Magus. I saw many things differently after all that time.

Ulysses -- Music in particular gets so much better with multiple "listenings". Some songs become almost as cherished as good friends. I've never read a book that many times to say the same thing. But I'm already looking forward to re-reading the thousands of pages of Harry Potter when I finish Book #7. Those books are up there on my hit parade.

Bozoette -- I haven't read PG Wodehouse, but if it makes you laugh (and I know you are a clown), it's a good recommendation!

MOI -- I think the difference between a song and a book is about 10 hours. That's why we can afford to listen to music multiple times, but not too many books get that block of time more than once.

Pauline -- We do these things because they make us feel good. Good music and good books are every bit as good as good chocolate (and I know you are a chocolate connoissseur!) I thought Gone with the Wind was such a good read that I stayed up all night to finish it, but I must confess I read it only once when I was a teenager.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

You know I love repetition - going to look at the same painting at the Nat Gallery over and over, sitting practice, listening to Glenn Gould's Bach variations thousands of times, reading the same book over and over.

For me it's not about memory but about depth.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Reya -- Depth is an interesting concept. The first time around for anything -- book, song, movie -- results in one set of impressions that may be rather thin. Subsequent encounters add a richness and understanding that could well be characterized as depth. However, memory and in some instances time are what allows us to add successive layers to the picture.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Velvet said...

I would LOVE to relive some periods of my life. I'm obsessed with grade school and trying to remember things I've long forgotten. It fascinates me. I don't know why.

12:24 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Velvet -- Do you have class pictures from each grade? I love to haul out those pics and think about each kid, trying to remember their names and their stories. It was such a time of innocence, where what mattered most was that two other girls included you in their secrets. I was in love with all (most of) my teachers.

7:34 AM  

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