A couple of months ago, while I was in line waiting to get a Caffè Americano at my local coffee shop, the barista inquired about my reading habits. I noted my favorite science fiction novels: Slaughterhouse-Five and Brave New World. The barista then asked me about Fahrenheit 451, which I read early in my youth. “The ending was amazing, wasn’t it?” she inquired. At this point, a mild shock came over me, my cheeks reddened, and I muttered “Yeah, definitely.” The truth is: I’ve read the novel, but have forgotten almost the entire plot—ending included.
Ian Crouch, writing in a recent piece in The New Yorker, likened reading and forgetting with the following anecdote:
This forgetting has serious consequences—but it has superficial ones as well, mostly having to do with vanity. It has led, at times, to a discomfiting situation, call it the Cocktail Party Trap (though this suggests that I go to many cocktail parties, which is itself a fib). Someone mentions a book with some cachet that I’ve read—a lesser-known work of a celebrated writer, say Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” to take an example from my shelf—and I smile knowingly, and maybe add, “It’s wonderful,” or some such thing. Great so far, I’m part of the in-crowd—and not lying; I did read it. But then there’s a moment of terror: What if the person summons up a question or comment with any kind of specificity at all? Basically, what if she aims to do anything other than merely brag about having read “Daniel Deronda”?
My very brief encounter at the coffee shop still didn’t sway my mind on re-reading. Yes, I felt embarrassed about the episode, but the embarrassment did not deter my pride (re-reading is silly!). But about a month ago, things started to unravel. It began with my friend Steven’s suggestion to read John Steinbeck’s classic, East of Eden. I’ve long considered this novel to be in my top five books I’ve ever read: for the story, for the writing, for the allegory. I distinctly remember, how one summer before my junior year of high school, I spent four days, non-stop, engrossed in the novel (I’m a slow reader, I admit). But after Steven suggested reading the novel, I replied in the most glowing way possible: “A sublime selection. For anyone deliberating on whether to read this magnum opus: do it, and you will be better for it.”
And yet. I didn’t re-read East of Eden.
It was only during the discussion of the novel that someone by the name of Blake struck me as extremely profound. “Eugene, the first time you read East of Eden was in your teenage years. That was half a lifetime ago. Think about that.” And Blake is right. When put in that context, so much has transpired in my life over the past fifteen years, that I’ve had an epiphany: re-reading should be a pleasure in its own right. I shouldn’t feel guilt in re-reading; on the contrary, I should take comfort and joy in rediscovering a book which enlightened me so much in the past.
Ian Crouch notes:
If we are cursed to forget much of what we read, there are still charms in the moments of reading a particular book in a particular place. What I remember most about Malamud’s short-story collection “The Magic Barrel” is the warm sunlight in the coffee shop on the consecutive Friday mornings I read it before high school. That is missing the more important points, but it is something. Reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade.
I recollect not only when I read East of Eden, but how: in my room, in the downstairs basement curled up with a warm blanket, outside on the patio with butterflies floating in the distance. It is perhaps more wonderful to remember the sensory associations with reading than the plot.
And so, when 1984 was announced as the next book we were going to read in book club, I wasn’t going to make any excuses: I was going to re-read this novel. And I am glad I did. There were so many specifics from the novel which I didn’t remember that it felt like reading the novel for the first time.
My obstinate attitude on re-reading took more than ten years to come around. If you currently rationalize re-reading like I used to, I encourage you to consider re-reading not only as a remedy to forgetting, but as a profoundly new, joyous experience.