Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Searching for the Seams

I hefted the English textbook in my hand and decided it had to weigh at least ten pounds. How did I make it through high school with a straight spine after lugging a load of these on my back all day? I opened it at random, noting the occasional passage underlined in pencil, a smattering of dog-eared pages. The book contained a mixture of venerable and unknown authors and seemed, as such, an attempt to placate both those who preached the canon's continuing relevance and those in the more inclusive camp. I smiled at how the politics of academia flew right over the heads of all we bored students. What else had I missed all those years before? I flipped to the intro (which I'd never before bothered to read), and a paragraph under the condescending header "Guidelines for the Receptive Reader" stopped me in my tracks:

Read a story more than once: A story is not like a note with a message that we take in before we crumple up the paper and throw it away. The "message" of a story is in the way it takes shape, the way it creates its own reality. The stories in this book offer rewards for the reader who lingers over them, who goes back to them for a closer look.
I clapped the cover shut, struck by the obvious insight: We don't re-read books. I mean, the populace at large rarely ever returns to the first page. On eBay, you can find an entire category of used reading material designated at "Read Once Gently." Only recently have I myself started going back a second and a third and a fourth time, stocking The Middle Shelf with favorites that can stand up to such scrutiny. And stand up they have. Friends and family may wonder why I'm "reading that again," but the editors of my textbook understood. Oft-read titles reward you.

How? Well, not through novelty. Surprise is the first thing to go out the window. But as time goes on and you have another go at a particular volume, you start to notice something interesting: You're able to see the seams. You can perceive foreshadowing, pinpoint symbol and metaphor, grasp nuance of language. You begin to think like the author does, and once-obscure passages start coming clear. Not only is it an invaluable experience for a writer, it's a darn lot of fun for readers. Wordsworth
might have bellowed "quit your books" and charged that "we murder to dissect." But I've spent many a joy-charged evening with my nose in a worn paperback, searching for the seams.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


Unknown said...

I've always reread, constantly, from the very earliest books on. It used to confuse me why other people would ask me why I was reading the same book again. It seemed perfectly obvious to me; I'd enjoyed it, and I hadn't gotten everything the first time through.

I still spend probably 40% of my reading time on books I've read before...

Loren Eaton said...

Kudos to you, sir! I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one.

B. Nagel said...

I do the same thing with movies. Well, the good ones. And some television shows.

But books are best.

Loren Eaton said...

Ditto. I've gotten much pleasure out of rewatching Twelve Monkeys and various episodes of The Twilight Zone. I'm tempted to give Let the Right One In a few more watches, even though it's a bit ... grim. Director Tomas Alfredson did an amazing job.