Reread It? Why?

Mitch Hedberg was a funny guy. One of his jokes is an ideal way to introduce today’s topic. Here’s Mitch:

I wrote a script and gave it to a guy who reads scripts. And he read it and said he really likes it, but he thinks I need to rewrite it. I said, “Fuck that, I’ll just make a photocopy.”

A good reader might ask, “Why would any good reader ever reread a book? Books are not like TV shows and candy bars; it takes effort and time to consume them. There are innumerable authors and titles. If I go back and reread some of them I’m wasting time pouring over familiar territory instead of exploring new lands. Besides, I’m a good reader: I paid close attention to detail and got all I could hope to get the first go-round.”

An even better reader might concede the point and admit that rereading could be worthwhile for a few reasons. People change, and any changing of the reader will bring a new perspective to the novel or story. A second or third engagement with a prized text, over time, could reveal things about one’s self that previously were hidden from view. To this kind of sophisticated reader, a book acts like a funky mirror. Furthermore, the issue of taste and appreciation comes into play. Aspects of the story (tone of voice, jokes, metaphors) that you found delicious in the first reading might taste as good or better with repeated readings.

A third kind of reader, let’s call them super-sophisticated readers, has everything the first two kinds have but more: a curiosity, an openness, a willingness to be puzzled. I borrow the term “super-sophisticated” from Vladimir Nabokov who used it in another one of his favorite contexts: chess problems (see his autobiography Speak, Memory, p. 290-292). The analogy of chess problem composer-solver to fiction writer-reader is summarized succinctly in Brian Boyd’s 2011 book, Stalking Nabokov (p. 3-4).

Luckily for us, we have a short and superb example of literary fiction in which to illuminate this kind of writer-to-reader relationship. I’m talking about Nabokov’s short story, “The Vane Sisters.” It would defeat the whole purpose to talk further about this story unless you’ve read it, so click here to dive in. If you’ve read it but still don’t know what is meant above by “puzzlement” and the need for rereading, read “The Vane Sisters” again before continuing to the end of this blog.

Quiz time: is this a ghost story or a teasing near-ghost story? From the narrator’s perspective, looking around his room and through every nook of his recent dream, the conclusion must be negative since everything is “vague… illusive, lost.” There simply are no signs of dead Cynthia Vane. The good-basic reader gets the thrill of mystery and then closes the book to take up other pursuits. The sophisticated reader, coming to the last paragraph, pauses at “acrostics”. She looks up its meaning online or in her favorite, fat dictionary which had been snoozing under a sweater. She thinks, wait a minute, I saw something like that midway through the story, and scrolls up to find that sentence at the end of section 4:

“And I wish I could recollect that novel or short story (by some contemporary writer, I believe) in which, unknown to its author, the first letters of the words in its last paragraph formed, as deciphered by Cynthia, a message from his dead mother.”

She sees the word “acrostics” as referring to that passage, showing cooky Cynthia projecting messages from Beyond onto the patterns of details in everyday life. She “connects the dots” between related points in the narrative but doesn’t follow the lead or even recognize it as such.

But here the super-sophisticated reader has an ah-ha moment. A hunch, hurriedly followed to the last paragraph again. Then we find it. A magic launch pad which takes us up and up into the higher dimensions of the story. The details early in the narrative, which Nabokov so deftly paints to add a glimmering significance to this day of Spring thaw, are now seen with a heightened consciousness. Writing that piece in 1951, Nabokov will never again be so straightforward in tipping off his readers about the puzzle he’s designed for those who are willing to take another look. As he admitted in the Notes section to his Stories, “This particular trick can be tried only once in a thousand years of fiction.”

Suppose you composed an intricate gem for your readers, and you know one go-round wouldn’t be enough for them to get it. How might you signal to Whom It May Concern that another trip through might be rewarding? Well, you might employ other tricks, like a sudden change in narrative voice from third-person to first, or perhaps an address to the audience at large, as in the final pages of Pale Fire when the narrator gives these lines: “Well, folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I’d better stop, folks, right here. ”

Heck, one might even change genre to aid the wayfaring reader. Sign posts come in all shapes and sizes!

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3 Comments

  1. Paul j Rogers
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Re-reading The Vane Sisters is a cracking way to spend an afternoon!

  2. Andrew Oberg
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    I’ve been meaning to reread Brave New World for some time now. I appreciated your point on how personal changes can affect what we take from a diligent rereading.

  3. Nick Cody
    Posted April 16, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Once you get a taste of that soma…

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