On the Joys of Rereading

I love Post-it notes. Love them. The traditional 3″x3″, slightly yellow (the color of faded wallpaper), are my favorite. I routinely have a stack of 10 pads on my desk (at 100 sheets per pad, that means I usually have 1000 Post-it notes on my desk). I use them for everything. I make my daily To-Do lists on them, relishing as I check off each item – no matter how low-hanging – during the day. I write down things I need to look up for later or things that I need to remember. And, as the name would suggest, I use them to make take notes that don’t make it into the notebook. The organization they provided me was integral to my dissertation process. As I sit here and write this, there are 7 of them stuck to the desk beside my computer. I can’t live without them.

When it comes to being a productive member of society, I can’t function without my rituals. I just can’t. I’ve always been the person who is 15 minutes early to everything, although I suspect no small part of that is a result of doing so many extracurriculars in school and having a job most of my life. I always like to know where we’re going. Typically, I drive when I go somewhere with friends, usually following a general plan that I outlined. I do have unstructured fun, aka “fun,” and I am a big fan of relaxing. But when I need to do something or be somewhere, I make that shit happen. I’m not quite Leslie Knope or Amy Santiago but I’m close.

Rituals keep me grounded. Keep me focused. They give me a sense of security and control in a world completely lacking in rhyme or reason. Knowing that there is some degree of certainty for what is behind me and what lies ahead of me makes it easier for me to find the courage to get out of bed every morning, a prospect that (let’s be honest) gets harder and harder each day as 2020 stretches into infinity.

It’s always been this way, even back to my childhood. Before I knew exactly what kind of compulsive monster I was creating, I was already a fan of repetition. The first serious ritual I formed for myself, perhaps unsurprisingly, revolved around books. Since August of 2000, I’ve been reading The Once and Future King, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, usually finishing right before the school year started. I can’t remember when exactly I got them – I think in 1998? – but I was immediately hooked.

Already a fan of Star Wars, which is equal parts sci-fi and fantasy, the realm of high fantasy was bound to hook me. Tolkien’s Legendarium – the name of his entire canon, which is far more voluminous and intricate than just The Hobbit or LOTR – is easily my favorite and most obsessive universe (nerds know what I’m talking about here) just barely beating out Star Wars, in a 1a and 1b kind of situation. That being said, The Once and Future King is without a doubt the most important thing I’ve ever read. It remains my favorite book to this day, decades later.

I won’t get into a long recap of the book. It’s a classic in the fantasy genre. Simply put, it retells the Arthurian legend, with twists. Merlyn is a kindly old man living backwards through time (our future is his past and vice versa) who transforms a young Arthur into animals to learn about the natural world. King Arthur looks to rein in the chaos and violence of Medieval England (and even continental Europe) in an effort to create a new world. Lancelot is still Arthur’s best friend and best knight, but in this version, he is hideously ugly. Throughout, he is carrying on an affair with Queen Guinevere, in an open secret which becomes the driving plot point later in the novel.

The book is fantastic, going back and forth between farcical comedy and satire to political thriller and epic. It’s a family drama of soap opera proportions while also an immersive retelling/adaptation of a classic myth, rendered in such a way to understand White’s contemporary world (written before, during, and after the Second World War as a series of smaller stories published in 1958 as a single novel). A review on the back of the book calls it “the book of all things lost and wonderful and sad” and that honestly might be the best review of not just this book, but any book ever.

While he does push against the individual, at least in the sense that he outlines why unbridled Id is detrimental to humanity, White simultaneously advocates that we think for ourselves to not simply go along to get along. But then, in his typical fashion, he goes the other way. He tells us how important it is for us to think about how our actions affect the world around us only to immediately bombard us with example after example of how dangerous it can be to simply go along to get along.

I find myself screaming at Arthur; “Open your eyes, man! Your wife and best friend are chelating on you and your illegitimate son is plotting to kill you!” He never hears me; he’s far too busy thinking big thoughts and trying to rationalize his use of force to make peace in a world full of violence.

I HATE Lancelot and Guinevere for not being more careful. Lancelot is as bad as having an affair as Alan Rickman’s character in Love, Actually (seriously dude; you get your mistress jewelry and your wife a CD?!). And Guinevere could not be more obviously and openly disinterested in her husband the entire time. It’s maddening.

Every time I get to the end of the second section, I am convinced that this is the time Merlyn is going to remember to tell Arthur that Morgause is Arthur’s half-sister (by rape, no less) and to not sleep with her. But it always happens. Nothing ever changes. The story always unfolds in exactly the same way.

It’s a fascinatingly complex piece of writing.

I regret not reading it last year. Every time I read this book, I take away something new. The book has had a profound impact on my life. It’s influenced the way I think, the way I see the world. White imbued in me strong dislike of violence and of unfettered power. He instilled in me a deep awareness of and appreciation for the power of words and ideas, of thinking.

Much like history, literature never changes. At least not the actual paces or results of the story. Outcomes are set and the steps along the way are all known. Yet somehow, we still draw a lot of enjoyment from reading, studying, and then rereading the texts. We look for clues, hints, little snippets of information that maybe we missed the first 15 times through but this time, this time, juuust might yield a new truth or insight.

There’s nothing quite like reading a book for the first time. The humor, the horror, the plot, the relationships, the conclusion (OH MY THE CONCLUSION). It’s an experience that we never get to have a second time. Once you’ve read it, that’s it. You know it. You know everything about it and what happens and your dad’s question of “Reading that again? Why? YoU aLrEaDy KnOw WhAt HaPpEnS.” is a totally valid one.

Rereading a book isn’t an effort to rediscover your experience from the first read. It’s not an attempt to rekindle some lost nostalgia. Rereading is really not reading at all. It’s a relationship; a give and take. It gives you something new while you, in return, keep it alive.

Every reading of the book gives you something new, something you didn’t see before. Books, like any form of art, are deeply personal, not just to their creators but to those who experience them. How we experience art is inseparable from the setting. Ever see a big blockbuster movie in theatres, swear it was the most amazing thing ever, and then watch it on home video only to be super disappointed that the effects didn’t hold up on your 32″ Toshiba box TV? That reference is a bit dated, but you get the idea.

More than place, time is the great variable in how we experience art. Something we came to when we were young is going to resonate at an entirely different emotional and intellectual pitch than when we come back to it as an adult. That might seem incredibly obvious – children are different than adults – but the same is true when we look at our adulthood. There are books I read in my early-mid 20s that seemed to speak directly to who I was as a person. I read them now and wonder if was drunk back during that first read. Life, experience, changes the way we view not just the world but art. Not everything is for everyone, which is kind of the entire point of art in the first place, isn’t it?

That’s one of the great things about rereading books, at least for me. Many people much smarter than I have discussed the joys of getting new meaning from the text upon rereading. Finding new meanings based on the circumstances of your life. And don’t get me wrong, that’s a great part of the rereading process. But the real satisfaction I get from the experience is not from seeing how I view the book now, how the book has changed, but how I have changed since the last time I read it.

I’ve talked to other bibliophiles like myself. We may not keep a written record of when we read books (although I have read of people who do that, marking the date of each read on the inside cover) but we are generally quite good at remembering our books, when we got them, when we read them, etc. I can do it with just about every book in my library. It allows me to mentally track my own growth each time I read. If we understand and accept that our experiences with art are often linked to time and place, then remembering those experiences becomes a way for us to glimpse, and maybe even interact with, our past selves.

Seeing the person I was compared to the person I am now is immensely satisfying and enriching. How often do we get to such opportunities in life? Until we invent practical time travel – seriously, what’s taking so long, scientists? – there are only so many ways we can view the past, however imperfect those means may be.

Perhaps my love of rereading books is linked directly to my love of history. Maybe rereading is an extension of my love for researching and writing about the past. It’s definitely possible that I just love a good story and enjoy interacting with art, something which is pretty difficult if you’re not a creative, short of attending a showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show. Me; I’m not convinced. Perhaps my view of books is a bit too romantic, a bit na├»ve even, but I think that the time between when I last read something and the next tells as much of a story as do the words on the page.