Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Problem of Re-reading

I am not, by nature, a re-reader. Willow is, and many of my friends are. They are the sort of people who, when they have some free time, will pick up an old comfy favorite, and dig right in, sometimes cover-to-cover, sometimes just the good bits.

This is not the way I read. Partially because I read slowly, and partially because reading for pleasure for me can be so engrossing that I kind of shirk my other reading responsibilities, and partially because I'd rather just read something on my already towering to-be-read pile.

Unfortunately, this predilection away from re-reading is not particularly good for teaching, where not re-reading tends to leave you looking like a bit of a fool in front of the classroom, when you don't remember an incidental, but useful detail. For me, now in year five of my TT position, this really is starting to be an issue, because I'm re-teaching enough texts that I am having to go back for fourth and fifth readings--I know them well enough for this to be a little bit of drudgery, but not well enough to go without doing it.

I know, no one really enjoys re-reading for class: it's work, and it has a tendency to turn the thing we love into labor. But I think my particular problem with it also goes back to why I'm not a re-reader (two of those reasons, at least).

This week, I got a desk copy of Pale Fire in my box. I'm teaching it in a summer narrative theory course. I haven't read it yet, though I knew enough about it to know that it was going to be a good fit. And I've learned that if I want to keep up anything like a diet of new texts, I have to add them to my syllabi. Rarely do I teach a class in which I'm not reading something along with my students. So I've got Pale Fire on my pile.

That, and I took the kids to the bookstore today, to kill a little time on a frigid day where snowplay was impossible. They browsed the kids section, while I went off to look for something particular. I didn't find that text, but while poking around the fiction section, I ran across Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red, something I've been salivating over for some time. Since I read Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence this past winter break, I thought that since the Pamuk book covered some of the same historical and geographical territory, that now was a good time to grab it. (also...It was a lovely book that I already wanted and my will power was eroded by begging for Littlest Pet Shop sticker books). So I picked it up, and brought it home.

I walked in, and laid it on the table by the door, on top of Pale Fire and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which I'm teaching this week (Also, Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet--in a different class--and Shelley and Keats). In terms of urgency, then, My Name is Red automatically goes to the bottom of the pile. This makes me actually resent R&G, which would seem preposterous, except that I've already read it twice and seen it once in the last 15 months, and should look over it again tonight, instead of tucking into bed with a new marvelous beautiful novel that I really just want to read. For the first time.


Moria said...

Oh oh oh how jealous I am that you have My Name is Red ahead of you. I am intensely thrilled by it, in a way that no other work of Pamuk's thrills me. Partly the delightful convergence of pleasure and professional interest - I have read and will read this book not at all for "work," but it converges in so many ways with the fields of my work - and partly just for its beauty.

And I can't exactly pity you for your re-read of Pale Fire, either.

Related: so glad you're back to regular blogging, Horace. It's a treat. (I love also what you say about Calvino and readership below, but have neither time nor energy to say how or why.)

Horace said...

Glad to hear the vote of confidence for the Pamuk. I just hope I can get to it before, say, June. As for the Nabokov, that also a first-time read (shocking, I know). I think it's just that I am such a slow reader that I end up with huge gaps in my repertoire.

And thanks for the vote of confidence about blogging. In some ways, it may be procrastination from other kinds of writing, but right now, it's sustaining. We'll see how long I keep up the pace!

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, I'm one of those re-reader people, so obviously what I'm about to say is colored by that. I actually like re-reading for teaching. Seriously. Reading (or re-reading) for teaching is reading with a different audience in mind, if that makes sense, so I always see new things, even in those well-worn favorites or things that I teach all the time. I consider passages I love in a new light, and I almost always find passages that I had ignored on previous readings and that obviously are SO COOL. So here's the thing: don't think about reading R&G as reading that same old thing again. Think of it as a *new* reading experience. It makes the whole re-reading thing much less misery-inducing :)

(Actually, thinking of it this way might explain it better: you would go see a multiple productions of the same play without hesitation, right? Because each production will show you something new. Re-reading is a lot like that.)

Horace said...

Dr. C, the thing is you are SUCH a re-reader (ahem, teh Potter). And it's not that I dislike re-reading in and of itself. I do find pleasure in the discoveries of a re-read. It's just that the opportunity cost of a new narrative world is so high!

Tom said...

I too am fascinated by the first reading/rereading dynamic. I'll just point out here that I strongly believe these positions/forces are historically situated: in past periods where books/texts were rarer, works were often written anticipating readers would be (multiple) rereaders: as I teach early Brit Lit semester after semester, I engage in a kind of rereading that matches those texts very well indeed. More contemporary lit may well be designed for less re-reading pleasure? Or that the pleasure is (now) configured as the pleasure of the familiar and the nostalgic, rather than the pleasure of ever-renewed discovery? I'll think about it some more.

pocha said...

I'm not a re-reader mainly because of hte very last reason you list. That said, I do re-read for class, but it's more like re-skim (unless it's been a while). I don't think I'd mind as much if I had tons of extra time (i.e. no child at home), but when time is scarce, re-reading is (almost) the last thing I want to do for prep. I'd much rather 'read around' the text I'm teaching by reading recent critical essays or familiarizing myself with historical contexts.

I haven't read the Nabokov either. In fact, I've only read _Lolita_ which is very pathetic, I know.

One thing I always think I will like, but end up regretting: assigning novels I haven't yet read for class so I can, finally, read them. (Months later, though, I'll be happy I did it...)

Horace said...

@Tom: I think your historical observations are astute, though I might argue that this distinction is as much a result of the production of readers as consumers as it is of the production of texts. That is, I know when I more eagerly return to texts to write about them, I am frequently rewarded by those efforts (see Dr. Crazy above).

But I think publishing in the late-market-capitalist mode really wants to create single-time-readers by bringing new texts to market cheaply and quickly, far more quickly than I can read them at my pace...This drive may in turn change the texts as you suggest, but not uniformly.

@Pocha: "Reading around" a text is exactly what I find myself doing. But I do think it's interesting that we find the act of reading criticism around a text more rewarding/interesting/efficient than reading the primary text itself. Given that so many of us cite the pleasures of reading (cf the Calvino post below) as the catalyst for entering this profession, it would seem counterintuitive that given the choice we go to the criticism before returning to the text. I wonder, is this about our readership (as above) or about the demands of the job?

Sulpicia said...

Thanks: I enjoyed this post because it made me think about how my reading habits have changed since I first went to university. I always used to be a re-reader, but now I hardly ever re-read anything that isn't for work, and that's changed too, more recently. I used to re-read the course reading list every year, until a few of the titles felt a little worn out, and I just didn't have time anymore. Mostly, I have a list of page references with very brief notes on their relevance that I can bring up in discussion, and when I'm preparing, I go through the list, sometimes rereading a few of the key passages. This is usually enough to give me the useful details I need to guide the discussion, but without the time/patience commitment of a full reading.