Forgetful Reading

Anna KareninaHave you ever had this happen to you? You are talking with a friend about books and a title comes up that you remember really enjoying, but darned if you can remember much of what it was about? And yet, when watching the Lord of the Rings movies, I could spot every deviation from Tolkien’s text. How can this be?

New York Review of Books blog article by Tim Parks titled “Reading is Forgetting” helped make some sense of this for me. He quoted Vladimir Nabokov, who once commented, “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” Nabokov observes that the physical effort of reading line by line down a page and absorbing what is there makes it almost impossible to fully grasp the meaning of what we’ve read on a first reading. In fact, I can never fully recall all the richness of any book, even with multiple readings. But what happens with re-reading is that I’m reminded of some of what I’ve forgotten, I begin to make connections, and see more of the depths of what came out of the writer’s mind.

I wrote yesterday about reviewing, and I can see how we reviewers can sometimes get a book wrong. Most of the books I read, I read only once. And many books don’t deserve more than one reading. I can see particularly how reviewers who are assigned books and must review a number of so-so, or outright bad books may get a book wrong, even if they’ve read it through. We may miss or forget important things on a first reading. What we most remembered was our affective response to the book–how we felt about it. And, at least for me, that lingers long after my reading, and long after I recall the details of characters, plot, and quality of writing.

Reviewing, as I’ve commented before, is partly a memory device for me. That works in two ways. One is that it actually makes me more attentive while I’m reading. I’m thinking, what are the main points of the writer’s argument? What are the main elements of the plot, the significant characters? And I’m thinking about my reactions. Why don’t I like this writing? Where am I in agreement and where not with the argument of this book? I don’t tend to take notes or write things down as I read so much as have a continuing mental dialogue with the book. Then, writing the review serves to crystallize this mental summary of and dialogue with the book I’ve been reading. Almost always, I will write the review after one reading, unless I feel I just haven’t grasped the book and yet think it worth writing about. I will skim most books again before writing to try to get the book as a whole in clearer focus.

Then there are those treasured few books that I read and re-read. Tolkien is one, that I’ve read about five or six times over forty years. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is another that I’ve read four or five times over about thirty-five years. Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country seems to engage me in new ways each time I read it. The Bible falls in this category as well. It is a massive work written over a thousand years by numerous human writers and yet continued reading and grasping more of the connections between parts of the text make this an ever-rich encounter for me.

One of my vacation book buys was the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Like so many, I read this book back in high school. I’ve also gathered from many (including the bookseller who rang up my purchase) that re-reading this work is an engaging experience. We’ll see, and see what memories, hopefully good ones, it brings back of my high school reading.

Have you had this experience of forgetting a book you liked? And are there books you remember, that have become friends as you’ve read and re-read them?

2 thoughts on “Forgetful Reading

  1. I don’t forget books very often, and believed in the past that re-reading books was not the bet use of time. But, in part due to book clubs, I have had a change of heart about re-reading.
    There is a series of books that has become very dear to me, the “Master and Commander” series by Patrick O’Brian. I have read all of them several times, and in fact get lonesome for the characters of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin after a time.
    A non-fiction book that is particularly special is “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed” by Philip Hallie. There seems to be a new lesson waiting to be learned with every reading.
    I also agree that re-reading Anna Karenina is worth your time.

    • I still have several Aubrey-Maturin books to read and have also enjoyed this series. I also deeply appreciated Hallie’s book! Thanks for your comments!

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