Remembrance of Books Past
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
The literary critic Roland Barthes once said that children, the elderly, and teachers were the only people in the world who ever had time to re-read books. Now well into middle-age or at least cresting the hill I know exactly what he means. Who has time to re-read books when there are so many flooding the stores every year (many, to be honest, that I would never pick up anyway, but still the number of new books that I might really want to read daunts me and requires me to choose Roth over Proust or some other ridiculous trade-off)? Even if you weren’t trying to keep up with new books, how many classics could you go back and read every year? How many of us have goals to re-read our favorite childhood books, or books from our youth, or books that touched us in a special way every year? Do our reading lists include books for re-reading?
Why would we want to re-read books in the first place? Isn’t the sheer volume of new words that I’ve just mentioned enough to keep us busy and satisfied for a long, long time? Why would we want to re-visit a novel that touched us when we were younger? Do we expect the novel to open new vistas, to tell us more about ourselves as we now are, to recover the lost innocence of our youth? Much as I love Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Wolfe, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Herman Hesse, I find it difficult to re-read them because the idealism I once admired in their pages no longer holds the same meaning for me. By the same token, when I re-read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain I feel more deeply Hans Castorp’s melancholy and his despair than I did when I first read it as a college freshman. I understood Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street much better when I re-read it a few years ago that when I read it in ninth grade simply because I understood social relations better then than now.
So, why bother to re-read at all? Sven Birkerts, one of our most brilliant literary critics, shares his own experiences of re-reading and offers some conjectures on the reasons we re-read in his new book, Reading Life: Books for the Ages (Graywolf; $16). Birkerts engages in re-readings of eleven books to which he has returned over and over during the years. It’s really a marvelous book, and his own readings drive us to pick once again some of these books that perhaps we have forgotten or that we didn’t think were worth ever picking up again because of our first reading of them. He ponders what qualities of books ranging from Catcher in the Rye, Women in Love and Madame Bovary to Humboldt’s Gift, Lolita, and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer merits his return engagements with them.
Why re-read? “Re-reading discloses its ulterior nature—it is not only the re-establishing of a connection with a set of scenarios once vivid in the mind, a way of checking back in with the imagining self, but is also a way of refreshing a voice, a tonality, that has very likely faded. Faded, but not vanished completely. The decision to re-read a book . . . is prompted by some flaming up of memory, by a longing to be immersed again in a feeling that we know was important, gratifying or somehow defining. We return, often, out of curiosity but also in the hope that something will be given back to us, or reawakened.”
In each chapter, Birkerts recalls when he first encountered the book and then recalls subsequent readings of it that recalled to him those earlier readings as well as the ways that the book touches him in new ways. On Catcher in the Rye, for example, he realizes from talks with his teenage daughter who has picked up his own copy of the novel and has been reading it that “the secret of Holden, his undying appeal, is that he remains fixed, through the genius of his disaffection, through Salinger’s perfect grasp of the pathos of adolescence . . . right at the point of sacrifice . . . Unable to take the one small step toward accommodation, he becomes a martyr to the cause of doomed innocence, possessor of a cynicism that is so heartbreaking because it is entirely preemptive, in training for the disappointment of life to come.”
Birkerts’ first reads Madame Bovary in a bunkhouse in 1971 in Montana when his stash of Kerouac is exhausted. Although the details of Charles and Emma’s world draws him into nineteenth-century France, he eventually recognizes, on a later reading, that Madame Bovary has little to do with paying the price for adulterous transgressions [as the novel is so often taught] and everything to do with paying the toll on an ungoverned narcissistic grandiosity.”
Re-reading demonstrates the lasting value of the books we now call the “classics.” “That would be my personal test for the ultimate artistic greatness of a work whether having read it I am drawn back, over time, to read it again, and, no less important, whether on return I feel, like any prodigal, the heartsick melting sensation that the first glimpse of home so often delivers.”
Birkerts’ readings are elegant and instructive and do drive us to pick up and re-read whether we are children, the elderly, or teachers those books whose presence still lives on hidden in the corners of our hearts and souls waiting for the right moment to emerge once again and teach us about ourselves.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at