Begin The Begin

repetitionThere’s a wonderful essay by Eve Garrard over at Norm’s place in defence of repetition. Her hook is Anne Ashworth’s statement that:

Life’s too short to read anything twice… As tempting as it is to pick up and re-read something you’ve enjoyed – loved even – I only have to walk into a bookshop and I’m so overwhelmed by the novels that deserve and demand to be read, I know I’ll never waste time going back over old ground.

I’ve heard that argument before and never been convinced by it. My English teacher used to tell us that we would never get to read everything. She was right. There isn’t enough time. Martin Amis says that the last man to have read everything was Coleridge, and that each new book holds less and less of the whole.

The mentality of wanting to read everything, to munch through the pages and then move on, shades into that of reading for status: reading to have read rather than for the pleasure of reading.

The strange and benevolent classics tutor from The Secret History tells his students that it is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially.

People listen to the same songs over and over, watch the same films over and over. Most drama productions are similar interpretations of the same plays that have been performed again and again and again, from Shakespeare’s time to that of Euripedes. There are political speeches, Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s and Kennedy’s, that have been quoted and plagiarised for generations. And of course the priests would like you to read certain, apparently magical books every day for the rest of your life.

The same goes for human experience in general: no one has sex and then says ‘Well, I’ve been there, done that, it’s the monastery for me.’

But reading a book more than once is considered obsessive. I wonder why?

Or maybe I am an obsessive. I have read entire copies of books to shreds. I have books that I discovered as a kid that I still read once or twice a year. Readers of this blog will have an idea of which novels these are because I can never resist quoting them.

Still, I find the reread has its rewards. Apart from the symbolic/allegorical shit that you never understood when ploughing through that secondhand copy in GCSE English, you will find depth and tone and nuance that you never discovered before. To quote Garrard:

There are two main arguments in favour of seeing or hearing or generally experiencing things again. Firstly, seeing again very often means seeing anew: it’s only on the second (or third, or tenth) reading that details of plot and character become clear; that patterns and their meaning emerge with their full force. I’ve been re-reading Jane Austen all my life, and each time I learn more about, say, the nature and goodness of Jane Bennett, or the perfection of malevolent self-deception that is Mrs Norris. The first time I read ‘In Memoriam’ I didn’t even grasp that it was an elegy for a pre-Darwinian view of the world and our place in it – I didn’t really see past the mourning for the dead friend. On my first reading of Tolkien I thought I was following a Quest story whose main features were the struggle between good and evil, and the strangeness and beauty of different kinds of creatures. Quest stories are fine, so I re-read – and eventually came to realize that one of the central characters (so to speak) is something much, much more remarkable: it’s the landscape, the handling of which gives the whole trilogy a great deal of its power.

Rereading is a great way to discover the beauty of language. And good language is like a song, one of those classic songs that sends a shudder of pleasure down the spine. To finish again with Garrard:

There’s another and more fundamental argument for this: some things are worth seeing or hearing or doing for their own sake, because of the richness and beauty of what they offer; and if they’re worth doing once, then they’re worth doing again. Perhaps this is clearest with music: is it a waste of time to listen again to a really beautiful melody? Even if we don’t learn more from the second hearing, the beauty repays hearing twice, or 20 times for that matter. Beauty is like that – it’s worth experiencing, and experiencing again, just for its own sake. Everyone in fact behaves as if they agree with this – we hum or whistle or listen again to our favourite tunes just for the pleasure of hearing them, because of their beauty or jauntiness or nostalgic melancholy, and those of us who like poetry do the same with it too, turning over in our minds the luscious rhythms and rhymes and metaphors (or the spare austerity and monosyllabic restraint) of our favourite verse.

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