Notes of a Chronic Rereader | Daily News


 

Notes of a Chronic Rereader

It has often been my experience that rereading a book that was important to me at earlier times in my life is something like lying on the analyst’s couch. The narrative I have had by heart for years is suddenly being called into alarming question. It seems that I’ve misremembered quite a lot about this or that character, or this or that plot turn—they met here in New York, I was so sure it was Rome; the time was 1870, I thought it was 1900; and the mother did what to the protagonist?

Yet the world still drops away while I’m reading and I can’t help marveling, If I got this wrong, and this and this wrong, how come the book still has me in its grip?

Like most readers, I sometimes think I was born reading. I can’t remember the time when I didn’t have a book in my hands, my head lost to the world around me. On vacation with family or friends, I am quite capable of settling myself, book in hand, on the living room couch in a beautiful country house and hardly stirring out into the glorious green for which we have all come.

Blazing sun

Once, on a train going through the Peruvian Andes, with everyone else ooh-ing and aah-ing out the window, I couldn’t lift my eyes from The Woman in White. On a Caribbean beach I sat in the blazing sun, Diane Johnson’s Lesser Lives (an imagined biography of George Meredith’s first wife) propped on my knees, and was surprised when I looked up to see that I wasn’t surrounded by the fog and cold of 1840s England. The companionate-ness of those books! Of all books.

Nothing can match it. It’s the longing for coherence inscribed in the work—that extraordinary attempt at shaping the inchoate through words—it brings peace and excitement, comfort and consolation. But above all, it’s the sheer relief from the chaos in the head that reading delivers. Sometimes I think it alone provides me with courage for life, and has from earliest childhood.

We lived in an immigrant, working-class neighborhood in the Bronx where all needs were met through the patronage of one of the many stores that ran the length of a single shopping street. The butcher, the baker, the grocer, the bank, the drugstore, the shoe repair: all storefront operations. One day, when I was quite small, seven or eight, my mother, holding my hand, walked us into a store I’d never before noticed: it was the local branch of the New York Public Library.

The room was long, the floorboards bare, and the walls lined, floor to ceiling, with books. In the middle of the room was planted a desk at which sat Eleanor Roosevelt (in those days, all librarians looked like Eleanor Roosevelt): a tall, bosomy woman with a mass of gray hair piled belle epoque–style on the top of her head, rimless glasses perched high on her incredibly straight nose, and a look of calm interest in her eyes.

Storefront library

My mother approached the desk, pointed at my head, and said to Eleanor Roosevelt, “She likes to read.” The librarian stood up, said “Come,” and walked me back to the front of the store where the children’s books were sectioned. “Start here,” she said, and I did. Between then and the time I graduated from high school, I read my way around the room. If I’m asked now to remember what I read in that storefront library, I can only recall that I went from Grimm’s fairy tales to Little Women to Of Time and the River.

Then I entered college where I discovered that all these years I’d been reading literature.

It was at that moment, I think, that I began rereading, because from then on it was to the books that had become my intimates that I would turn and turn again, not only for the transporting pleasure of the story itself but also to understand what I was living through, and what I was to make of it.

I’d grown up in a noisy left-wing household where Karl Marx and the international working class were articles of faith: feeling strongly about social injustice was a given. So from the start, the political-ness of life colored almost all tangible experience, which of course included reading.

I read ever and only to feel the power of Life with a capital L as it manifested itself (thrillingly) through the protagonist’s engagement with those external forces beyond his or her control.

In this way I felt, acutely but equally, the work of Dickens, Dreiser, and Hardy, as well as Mike Gold, John Dos Passos, and Agnes Smedley. I had to laugh when, a few years ago, I came across an essay by Delmore Schwartz in which he (Schwartz) takes Edmund Wilson to task for Wilson’s shocking lack of interest in literary form.

For Schwartz, form was integral to the meaning of a literary work; for Wilson, what mattered was not how books were written but what they were talking about, and how they affected the culture at large. His habit, always, was to place a book in its social and political context.

This perspective allowed him to pursue a line of thought that let him speak of Proust and Dorothy Parker in the same sentence, or compare Max Eastman favorably with André Gide. For Schwartz, this was pure pain. For me, it was inexpressibly rewarding. And what could have been more natural than that the way I read was the way I would begin to write.

- Paris Review


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