Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fictional Metabolism: Seconds, Anyone?

Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.
-- Vladimir Nabokov, in Strong Opinions --

I wonder if I am a very good reader.
Admittedly, there have to be way worse ones. Readers than me. Oh, hell yeah.
I mean, I do give it a good try, I think. I try to thoughtfully read.

But if ol' Vladimir's words, above, are even half as ex cathedra as they seem -- yeah, I am a poor reader.
I just read and move on. Read and move on. Read and move on.
I have much the same approach to eating, I guess.
My relationship with food is not at all about lengthy contemplation. It's morseo about, "Hey, that plate was full a minute ago!"
And not only this. I'm not talking about SPEED!
I'm moreso, after reading [and rereading] the Nabokov quote, thinking about my entire thought process.
My thoughts.
I eat a great meal, and my mind is already on the next platter of grub!

I read a great book and........ well, you get the picture, right?
About "food" I am no connoisseur.
At least with books, I can take some comfort in feeling that I am somewhat selective in what I ingest.
But, I seldom reread.
Am I a good reader? A major reader? An active and creative reader?

<-- In her [very] recently released book, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, novelist Zadie Smith says, "The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, etc. It's a fortunate rereader who knows half a dozen novels this way in their lifetime."
Again, a provocative statement. To follow through with my food analogy, hmmm... I consider the following:
What if I did not [pardon me] umm........ DIGEST all the food I ate?
Just kept on cramming it in to my haggis-holder there!
Believe me, it's a lot of grub! On a daily basis.
I'd probably explode.
I don't joke around about two things:
Food and Books.
It seems to me that both of these incredibly astute authors are suggesting here that rereading is the elan vital of the truly literate reader.
With Zadie Smith's statement I would seriously have to ask myself..... "Which novels have I read and reread?"
I know that the novel that launched me into a life of literature-appreciation was Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
Did I reread it? Yes.
And my favorite novel? Anna Karenina.
Did I reread it? Yes.
But most of the books I read?
I read. I move on. I DEVOUR! I devour another. I'm gluttonous.

If I were to address Zadie and/or Vladimir 100% honestly, I would say that for me, personally, the novel I have reread the most -- the novel that probably defines my interests the most, the novel, the architecture of which,l I am most familiar -- is C.S. Lewis's wonderful 1956 book, Till We Have Faces.
I have read it at least four or five times, and I know I will read it again.
It is the myth of Cupid and Psyche, retold.
An amazing book about the distinction between pure and profane love.

Interestingly enough, C.S. Lewis himself was a man who also valued the art of rereading.
In 1947, he said, "An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only... The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain surprisingness. The point has often been misunderstood... In the only sense that matters the surprise works as well the twentieth time as the first. It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time... in literature. We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words. They want to have again the 'surprise' of discovering that what seemed like Little-Red-Riding-Hood's grandmother is really the wolf. It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness of the peripeteia."

Narrative lust. I like that.
The whole quotation makes perfect sense.
Everything right up until that last word, written in Klingon.

I personally own FIVE separate copies of Till We Have Faces.
No one keeps just one frozen hamburger in the freezer!



Anonymous said...

I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird regularly. I'm in love with the novel. I know exactly where my copy is (I only have the one) and I'll NEVER lend it to anyone.
But now you have me all curious and I'll have to try your favorite as I've never read it. I'm sure it won't change things for me though, Harper Lee will always reigh supreme on my book shelf.

Stefanie said...

Loved your post Cip! I am trying to be better about re-reading but it is really hard when there are so many books that I want get to that I haven't even read once! Though when I think about it, there is a small pile of books that I have read and re-read. In fact, I am currenlty distressed because I'd like to re-read Thoreau's Walden for the 4th time and I can't find my little paperback with all my notes in it! I will be a bit frantic until it turns up. Til We Have Faces is marvelous. I read it a couple years ago because of you, so thanks for that!

Jeane said...

I have many favorite books that I re-read, but I've never deliberately owned multiple copies! Which cover is your favorite? (you must have one)

cipriano said...

Yes, I too, really like To Kill A Mockingbird. That is one I should re-read sometime. Do you think you would ever read a biography of Harper Lee? I have a [signed by the author, no less] copy of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shileds. I myself have not read it yet.

This is wild, I had no idea I had inspired you to read of Psyche, and Orual, and The Fox, and Ungit and Redival and Bardia and the adventures of Glome! I just love the book, I shall definitely re-read it yet again!
I do hope you find your annotated and well-marginalized Thoreau volume!

I love all these books... I would buy even more, whenever I see a different cover for it, I shall buy it.
The one I have read the most is the middle one in the picture. The Harcourt & Brace reissue.
But the one that is my pride and joy is the first one in the sequence, I found it at an Antiquarian Book Fair and it wasn't cheap. It is days shy of being a First Edition. The book first came out in September 1956, and this is a reprinting by Geoffrey Bles Publishers in the SAME MONTH.
I started hyperventilating [mind you, I had just eaten several hamburgers...] when I spied this thing as I was nonchalantly browsing around at this Book Fair.
But the middle book is my favorite for reading and rereading purposes.

Beth said...

While my appetite for food is not as voracious as yours (although I have been known to emit an occasional burp ;) ) I am a voracious reader. How many books have I re-read vs. have I intended to re-read? The latter exceeds the former & most of my “re-reads” are from my youth. Perhaps I should go back and discover other worlds in beloved books but there are so many new books clamouring for my attention…

“Had we but world enough and time…”

May said...

You are an amazing reader! When I read you posts, I am always impressed by your voracious habits.

Anonymous said...

Friggin' right I'd read her biography. I know next to nothing about her. Ah, the shame!

Anonymous said...

"C", a couple of years ago, I saw Charles Shields speak about his Harper Lee biography [Mockingbird].

It is really a wonderful account of how one might go about gathering information when the subject does not WANT information to be gathered about him/herself.

Personally, I am of two minds on this topic. One (the stronger) says to leave her alone, for this is what "Nell" - what Harper Lee's friends call her - wants.

She was not a willing subject - would grant no interviews. And though she did not try to block publication, it was probably because she was afraid that to do so would engender even more publicity for Mr. Shields' work.

But she did call up people who he had scheduled to talk with him, and she told them not to talk to him! Most complied with her wishes, so he had quite the time with access to authorized sources. His account of the obstacles he "overcame" in digging out information alone makes the book an interesting read.

I found Shields' biography as interesting for the PROCESSES he was forced to use in going about gathering personal material as it for the actual information that he gathered.
I am sure you know that Lee is notoriously private, but - Shields says - by no means a hermit.

Though she goes downtown and has coffee and attends some civic events, so many people had come to her home town to scout(no pun) around, she finally moved her old upright piano in front of the picture window so they could not gawk in.

She must have felt a little like Boo Radley.

He also said that so much of what Capote wrote in the In Cold Blood was directly taken from Harper Lee's notes.

As in word-for-word.

And she got very little credit for this contribution. If you have seen the film Capote, you know how dependent Capote (Dill in the novel) was on her in the information gathering process in Kansas.

Incidentally, Shields has another edition of the bio called I Am Scout, which he adapted for high school students. Formerly a high school English teacher himself, Shields got the idea to research Lee when he discovered that there was very little information for students researching her.

I found Mockingbird a fascinating read (a one-sitting read), even if in the back of my mind all the time, I was thinking of Mr. Shields as a bit of a scoundrel and a rogue!

By the way, at the time of his lecture, he was working with a bio on Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He told us that this was a very easy effort compared to the Lee Vonnegut invited him to his "smoking room" - a study away from the house (where he was forbidden to smoke) - and said "What do you want to know? Turn on the tape recorder."

Vonnegut was as open as Lee was closed. According to Shields' website, the bio is scheduled to be published in 2010. I can't wait to read it.

Another real nice post, cipriano. You talk about literature as if you like books or something.

cipriano said...

I muchly agree with you..... so many books to read for the first time, who has time for seconds? I am just finishing a book now, and literally salivating like a Pavlovian dog as I consider the next one to be cracked open!

I am quite a slow reader, and I WISH I was more of an amazing reader. But I am an incredibly CONSISTENT reader.... as in, as soon as I am not reading, I am instantly in a state of psychologically problematic withdrawal.

Wow, I should lend you my book sometime!
Anonymous has given you a wonderful introduction to the thing.

This is an amazing posting. I would be interested in reading the book of you writing about the writing of this book!