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

Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition, by Jane Austen, edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks – A Review

Just when I thought I had more editions of Pride and Prejudice than I should ever own up to, I will freely admit to just one more. After all, what Janeite could resist this tempting package? An unabridged first edition text; Annotations by an Austen scholar; Color illustrations; Over-sized coffee table format; Extensive introduction; And, supplemental material – all pulled together in a beautifully designed interior and stunning cover. *swoon* Where are my aromatic vinegars?

This new annotated edition appeals to modern readers on many levels beyond being a pretty package of a beloved classic. Austen is renowned for her witty dialogue and finely drawn characters, but not for her elaborate physical descriptions or historical context. When Pride and Prejudice was originally published in 1813, this brevity was accessible to her contemporary readers who assumed the inferences, but after close to two hundred years words have changed their meaning, insinuations and subtle asides have become fuzzy, and cultural differences from Regency to twenty-first century are worlds apart. Anyone can read Pride and Prejudice and follow the narrative, but it is so much more enjoyable if you can read it on an expanded level understanding it in social, cultural and historical context. Editor Patricia Meyer Spacks has not only added extensive notes on plot, characters, events, history, culture and critical analysis from a vast array of Austen and literary scholars, but added her own personal insights and observations from years of reading Austen and her experience as a college professor. From shoe roses to Fordyces Sermons to military floggings to the 19th-century meaning of condescension, readers will be informed and enlightened on every aspect related to the novel, the author and her times. In a nut shell, she has vetted great resources, gathered nuggets of knowledge and placed them at our feet.

As with all of Austen’s characters, this new annotated edition of Pride and Prejudice has its own charms, “frailties, foibles and follies.” Weighing in at over three pounds, and encompassing 464 pages of unabridged text and fine print margin notes, this book easily reigns as the most all-inclusive and well-researched editions of Jane Austen’s masterpiece that I have ever encountered. Considering that the elaborate annotation classifies it as a reference work in addition to a full text, it is quite puzzling that it lacks an index. In addition, the illustrations are expertly selected but sadly lost some of their refinement in the printing process, coming across dark and murky in places. However, I was pleased to see a list of further reading and illustration credits listed in the back of the book to encourage readers to “add something more substantial, in the improvement of [their] minds by extensive reading.

Beautiful, sumptuous and satisfying, Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition is a monumental achievement that should be on the top of your holiday wish list and considered one of few editions available to be esteemed truly accomplished.

5 of of 5 Regency Stars

Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition, by Jane Austen, edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2010)
Hardcover (464) pages
ISBN: 978-0674049161

© 2007 – 2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose