Many of you have previously read this week’s book. I first encountered The Awakening in high school. I read it again in my sophomore year as an undergrad. I returned to the text in two graduate classrooms. I teach the text as well. I re-read Chopin’s novel again this week. Each time I explore this small book I find another turn of phrase or idea or passage that I missed last time. As we begin to explore The Awakening tomorrow, I want to challenge you to read it anew as well:
I think that authors’ ghosts creep back
Nightly to haunt the sleeping shelves
And find the books they wrote.
Those authors put final, semi-final touches,
Sometimes whole paragraphs.
Whole pages are added, re-written, revised,
So deeply by night those authors employ
Themselves with those old books of theirs.
Explain the fact that maybe after years
Have passed, the reader
Picks up the book – But was it like that?
I don’t remember this … Where
Did this ending come from?
I recall quite another.
Oh yes, it has been tampered with
No doubt about it –
The author’s very touch is here, there and there,
Where it wasn’t before, and
What’s more, something’s missing –
I could have sworn …
(Muriel Sparks “Authors’ Ghosts” 2003)
(Side note about Muriel Sparks: today would have been her 100th birthday. If you haven’t read anything by her, I recommend you check her out. She’s one of my favorite Scottish authors. For more information on Muriel Sparks, check out this article from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/29/ali-smith-on-muriel-spark-at-100)
One thought on “Reading for the First Time a Second Time”
Rachel’s point about re-reading is spot-on. Over the years I’ve found re-reading to be a lot like revising – both activities almost invariably improve the recipient text.
My writing (and thinking) are honed and refined as I wrestle with the words I type. As I rewrite I carefully pick through my lexicon – my word-hoard, to use an Anglo-Saxon phrase – knowing that somewhere among the treasure of language there is there is only one right word for each word that I will put into each sentence. Lesser, inferior words will do in a pinch, but they will not satisfy. As I shine the lantern of my mind towards the dark corners of the text I’ve written – a text that I think I know – I discover new ideas lurking, waiting to be caught by the ear, dragged out, polished up, and put on display for the reader. That’s me revising.
Rereading is like that. I pick up a book I think I know, open it, and find myself confronted by words that are both strangely familiar and, at the same time, totally alien. I am remembering that somebody read this book, but not me. The sixteen year-old and the twenty-four year old who both bore my name are related to me, but aren’t me. Wordsworth tells me, “The child is father of the man.” I remember all those former me’s – the young, enthusiastic me full of romantic ideas about “literature,” the more mature me with a carefully cultivated cynicism – reading this book, but they possessed emotions, feelings and experiences that I no longer have. The nearly illegible notes throughout the book, like graffiti, remind me of these earlier visitors, but leave me with only vague hints of what those earlier visitors experienced in these pages. And I, the I of here and now, am different from those other selves. I am the married man, the father, the teacher of fourteen years. So the book uses the same old language, the same words, to tell me something new – something I need to hear in this moment. Ideas that I skated right past in earlier readings suddenly resonate with the current me, and old words, glossed over in a hasty first reading, become beautiful and pregnant with meaning on an umpteenth reading.
All of this to say that it was good to reread “The Awakening”. My first, and only reading, prior to this week, was for a women’s lit course I took as an undergraduate attending college in England. At the time I didn’t like the novel. As a young man at the end of the 20th century I found Edna Pontellier, a 19th century, upper-class woman, wife and mother, perplexing, and even ridiculous. Who was this woman who said, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself”? I was two decades away from having a son and facing a version of Edna’s choice. Who was this woman who, in learning to swim, felt “as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul”? I was over a decade away from watching my wife revel in her newly discovered ability to swim. Who was this woman who, “was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her?” As a confident young man I was decades away from recognizing that my own position in the universe as a human being was vulnerable and in need of exploration.
Lived experiences have changed how I read “The Awakening”. So have the vicarious experiences of lives I’ve had through other books. On first reading “The Awakening” I wasn’t able to see Edna as another version of the nameless narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. I did not see that Kate Chopin’s Edna, Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie and Sinclair Lewis’s Carol were all literary sisters, nor did I recognize in Edna the crippling ennui that Betty Friedan ascribes to middle-class white women in “The Feminine Mystique”.
This is why I reread novels, and why I look forward to diving, with Edna, into Kate Chopin’s literary ocean again.