On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks – A Review

On Rereading, by Patricia Meyer Spacks (2011)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

Not too long ago, I picked up my old and battered copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and reread the novel.  It was my third reading.  I was pretty confident that I would stop reading after the first few chapters, thinking that I only wanted a small dose of familiarity and good, old-fashioned Gothic comfort before turning to something else, something new.  Jane’s haunting self-awareness, however, sucked me in (again) and I read the whole thing through trying hard to keep feelings of guilt at bay for what felt like a waste of my time.  I shouldn’t be rereading Jane Eyre, I told myself, when I still haven’t read Bronte’s Shirley or the book I checked out from the library or this book or that book that I should read for this or that reason.

And yet, despite these feelings, I reread all the time and I’ll probably never stop.  In fact, I hope I never do because my third reading of Jane Eyre was, so far, my most enjoyable.  “This passion for sameness,” as recently retired Literature professor and editor of Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition Patricia Meyer Spacks describes it, is the subject of her new book On Rereading, an interesting hybrid of literary criticism and memoir.  Released late last year by Harvard University Press, Spacks’ book attempts to answer the very fascinating question of why we read the same books over and over again.

Spacks’ book is mostly a collection of thoughts about novels reread over a period of one year, an attempt to trace personal development and growth through literature revisited.  After a nuanced examination of the act of rereading, Spacks begins her experiment with children’s books with such classics as Alice in Wonderland.  A substantial chapter on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma follows with a discussion of how these novels continue to instruct far beyond the initial reading.  A number of chapters are devoted to the project of trying to disentangle personal and social history from the books we read and reread followed by chapters on recreational and professional rereading.  Of course, like any comprehensive book on rereading, the temptation of rereading books we should have liked, and those we feel we shouldn’t have liked but did anyway, is also explored.  The book ends with the lovely articulation that we are never alone when we read since through reading and rereading we are in a silent exchange with the book’s author, with the generations of readers before and after us, etc., that the act of rereading can be far more dynamic and interactive than we realize.

Rereading, according to Spacks, is “a treat, a form of escape, a device for getting to sleep or distracting oneself, a way to evoke memories (not only of the text but of one’s life and of past selves), a reminder of half-forgotten truths, an inlet to new insight.  It rouses or soothes or reassures.  And…it can provide security” (2).  This sense of security is born from a text’s seeming stability since, as we all know, the words on the page do not change with time.  And, yet, the conviction that change has indeed taken place when we reread can feel so powerful as to convince us otherwise.  It is this sense of change, this “something,” that fascinates Spacks.  The book may not have changed over time but we, as readers, definitely have and, consequently, our relation to the book has changed as well.

Underpinning this experiment are assumptions worth highlighting: reading fiction is important, recreational reading is important, and rereading need not be an act of avoidance or laziness but re-engagement.  Readers of this blog will probably find the act of rereading pretty standard as, according to an informal British survey mentioned in Spacks’ book, Pride and Prejudice is the third most popular reread text (the Harry Potter books, interestingly, are the first most popular).  And, arguably, the countless contemporary re-imaginings of Austen’s world are, to my mind anyway, a type of rereading – we revisit and re-imagine and relive our experience(s) of reading Austen’s books whenever we pick up a contemporary book featuring Darcy or Lizzy Bennet.  Spacks’ book, particularly her first chapter which I think is her best chapter, is worth the read if you’ve ever been interested in this question of why we read the same books over and over.  But, fair warning, you’ll probably feel the urge to pick up an old favorite as soon as you’re done.  Hopefully with a little less guilt.

4 out of 5 Stars

On Rereading, by Patricia Meyer Spacks
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2011)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0674062221
Kindle: ASIN: B006LZTL9O
Nook: ISBN: 978-0674063310

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

© 2007 – 2012 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

24 thoughts on “On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks – A Review

  1. I’ve also found myself a dedicated re-reader over the decades, along with the allure of all the books remaining to be enjoyed. Thanks for introducing me to Patricia’s book, Ala!
    I learn something each time I reread Austen’s novels (which I do annually for too many decades now), Shakespeare,Bronte .. but also Nostromo, the Sherlock Holmes stories.
    Even a few pages of Keats, Shelly, Dickinson or Herodotus’ wonderful tales calms me on a savage day. Books new to me alas don’t do that. As fascinating as they are, they are not old friends yet.

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  2. I reread all the time. One of my favorite authors is Barbara Pym. I think I have reread all of her books many times over. I call it comfort reading. After all you enjoy a really God meal over and over why not a good book?

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  3. I, too, am a serious rereader. Every time I reread a favorite book I find new nuances to the story, or references that did not mean anything to me at the time, but now do. I also prefer rereads for pre-bedtime reading. I do not want to find myself in a book which causes me to lose sleep, whether because of content or fascination with the story. I still have difficulty stopping, but at least I am not hanging on a cliff, wondering what will happen.

    These habits have worn out entire sets of Jane Austen, Dorothy Sayers, Ellis Peters, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Laurie R. King books, as well as leaving battered copies of Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist on my shelves. The Kindle book, happily, does not wear out, but my favorites from the first half of the twentieth century, such as Dorothy Sayers, are not yet available on Kindle. The Kindle makes for easy, no eye strain reading at bedtime, but a paper copy still works best for research, hence my shelves with multiple copies of Austen and Jane Eyre!

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  4. This sounds like a wonderful book,not to mention a fun topic! Rereading can help you appreciate a novel better,in my opinion.

    For example,I’ve grown much fonder of Emma Woodhouse(she ranks around fourth place in my list of Favorite Austen Heroines) during the many times that I have gone through the book. Rereading Emma right now,actually! Great review,Aia:)

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  5. Thank you for another great review, Aia Hussein! I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Spacks speak to a local JASNA group last spring, so I eagerly anticipate her company and insights on rereading! In particular, I look forward to what she might say about why certain “classic” reads (acknowledged as “keepers”, well-written, with lasting impact, etc.) are more attractive for rereading than others… since the endings are no longer in doubt!

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  6. I need to order this book — I am 61 and a compulsive rereader since childhood. I reread Austen pretty regularly, generally every 3 or 4 years; I would say that no book changed for me more than P and P between first reading at 16, and second reading at 21 for a course called “Images of Women In Literature” — but my English professor-father said that ANY book would have changed drastically for me during those years.
    I regularly reread “The Secret Garden” and “Lolita” and several novels by Dickens, notably “Little Dorrit” and “Great Expectations” which I find comforting. I have reread, inexplicably as I am not Roman Catholic, my beloved “In This House of Brede” by Rumer Godden when I have been badly traumatised, such as the deaths of my dad, mother and life partner which weirdly were all 5 years apart. As a poet, I reread the Sonnets and Dickinson fairly often, also ee cummings and Ernest Dowson — a strange assortment!
    My late partner used to say, “Why do you read a book you’ve read before?”
    and I would ask him why one cooked and ate foods one has eaten before. Because they are pleasurable and sustaining, that’s why. And, as much as I adore their books, I have never been able to reread JK Rowling and Anita Brookner, God knows why.

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  7. I find Jane Eyre a remarkable and profound book — I hope no one ever feels guilty reading that book. In my fifties the struggles Jane goes through, and that Charlotte expresses so clearly and intensely, were far more meaningful to me than when I read the book in my teens. I don’t think re-reading should ever be considered lazy or a guilty pleasure because we are engaging with ideas that have meaning for us. I think of the great liturgies of the world — I am most familiar with the Book of Common Prayer — and we read and re-read the words over and over again, each time the words making us think and become anew. Great literature is similar in its effects on the human soul.

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  8. Concerning the video, where are the men? C’mon guys, I feel like the Long Ranger. I had never been a re-reader or a re-watcher. Shoot, up until about 5 years ago, I wasn’t even reading ANY fiction. The only items I ever re-read was the Bible and my Little Golden Books as a youngster. That is, until I met Jane Austen! Fascinating review, Aia. Looks like I’m going to have to read “Re-read!”

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  9. Thank you for this post! A few weeks ago, I saw this post on Twitter: “I never re-read a book. Ever.” I thought that was so sad. I love to re-read books. In fact, I often have to fight myself to read something different. I now try to read the books I love just once a year or every other year. It’s a great comfort visiting the old friends.

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  10. That’s interesting to write a book on the significance of re-reading. People always ask me why I buy so many books and its because I love to re-read them. Now I’ll be able to find out why I do that. (-;

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  11. In rereading a classic text, we don’t read the book: the book reads us. What we see in it for the first time arises because of what we’ve lived through since the last reading.

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  12. I am a lifelong re-reader, beginning with “Little Women” at the age of 7. We had few books in my home, not because of lack of interest but of money. Someone had given my older sister “Little Women.” She read it only once, but I had to read it one or more times every year–virtually memorizing parts of it. My local branch library was one of my favorite places, but I didn’t re-read the library books–I was also eager to read ones. But I made lists of all the books I loved and vowed to buy them when I was grown-up and had some money–and that’s what I’ve done. My mother could never understand why I kept re-reading “Little Women.”

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  13. In rereading, we expand our knowledge as we develop new insights about the book, or novel. Rereading is reexperiencing a text more than once and culling new ideas which were not seen before. It only affirms that reading must be continuously exploratory and every reading is a chance to navigate through other avenues of wisdom and awe, singing birds, and fascinating sadness.

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  14. I, too, reread Barbara Pym –a LOT. I was lucky about 20 years ago at The Bloomsbury Book Fair and got a signed first edition of “An Unsuitable Attachment” for only £15.00, and then I found within its pages a letter from Hazel Holt!! I believe it was anne Tyler who wrote something to this effect: “Where does one turn when one has finished reading Barbara Pym? Why, back to Barbara Pym, of course.”
    It is odd, but it occurs to me that every few years when I reread “Jane Eyre” it is always midwinter. No idea why. And it seems to be usually in the spring that I reread “The Little Ottleys” by Ada Leverson, a trilogy I have loved for 45 years.

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    • Mitchel, what a great story about finding the letter from Hazel Holt. Did you write to her and tell her that you found it? I am such a detective I would want her to narrow down who the original owner of the volume was. A clue slipped into a book. Like catnip for me!

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      • No, Laurel Ann, alas I didn’t follow it up, I wish now that I had. Holt began her own career as a crime novelist — her detective, Mrs Malory, is an authority on early English fiction by women — at 60, and she is still active at 84, she says to keep up with her son Tom Holt, whose 2 “Lucia” sequels I also love.
        I broke down yesterday on my way to the first session of a formal poetry workshop and bought “Death At Pemberley” on sale at The Harvard Coop. I know many have disliked it, but I do love Austen and James and the combination proved irresistible.

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