“On Rereading,” by Patricia Meyer Spacks

November 18, 2011

Patricia Meyer Spacks, who has taught literature at a number of distinguished colleges and universities over the past half-century — she is now the Edgar Shannon Professor of English Emerita at the University of Virginia — is something of a rarity among those who practice her trade these days: She reads for pure pleasure as well as for professional obligations, and she understands that pleasure is a legitimate, valuable goal in and of itself. Reading fiction has the power to expose one to large truths about human existence, but there is more to it than that:

“It includes also the power of pleasure, an aspect of reading generally neglected in academic discourse and one that nonacademic readers often deprecate. ‘I’m just reading for pleasure’: that sounds frivolous, suggesting that one is reading ‘junk.’ From classic times through at least the eighteenth century, though, major critics agreed that pleasure and instruction define the dual purpose of reading, and both matter. It is noteworthy that Dr. Johnson, moral arbiter as well as literary critic, assesses each of his subjects in his mammoth work ‘Lives of the Poets,’ partly on the basis of the degree of pleasure the poet’s work evokes. Pleasure, in the many varieties that reading can produce, is worth being taken seriously by serious readers.”

Indeed it is, and in my own more than four decades of reviewing I have always included the amount of pleasure each book offers among the standards against which I measure it. A book scarcely needs to be frothy or trashy in order to provide pleasure — in order to be entertaining — as Dr. Johnson understood in attributing the enduring popularity of Shakespeare’s works to the pleasure they provide as well as the wisdom they impart. By the same token it is possible for a book to offer little beyond pleasure pure and simple yet to have genuine and enduring merit. Spacks cites the works of P.G. Wodehouse, and she is right to do so. “Everything that I recently reread by Wodehouse remained absolutely and completely the same as I remembered,” she writes, “and that seemed wonderful. . . . I wanted nothing new. I appear not to have changed at all, although I thought I had left Wodehouse behind with other childish things. Jeeves was entertaining as ever, in precisely the ways he was entertaining before. The prose of the stories offered familiar delights. The plots remained cavalier, unlikely, and fun. How did I get along without these pleasures for so long?”

That is one of the reasons we reread: to recapture, or rediscover, pleasures from our past. Sometimes those pleasures, like those offered by Wodehouse, are the same as they were the first (or second, or fifth, or 10th) time around, sometimes they are both old and new, and sometimes they are completely different. Rereading is, as Spacks puts it, “a treat, a form of escape, a device for getting to sleep or for 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.” Memory is important, but in rereading as in everything else it is apt to play tricks on you, at times ones that delight and at other times ones that do not.

All this was brought home quite forcibly to me during the first decade of this century when I reread dozens of books for a series of short essays in this newspaper. “We who love rereading love it for its surprises as well as for its stability,” Spacks writes. Sometimes the surprises can be unwelcome — William Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness” diminished in my estimation the third or fourth time around — and sometimes they can almost literally bend the mind: Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Death of the Heart,” which as a young reader I barely understood, revealed itself to me on the cusp of old age as nothing less than a masterpiece. Now, as reduced reviewing obligations leave me more time for rereading, I take it up with real passion, and the not-so-distant prospect of full retirement promises not merely a certain regret, to be sure, but delight at the time it will offer for plunging back into Forster and Forester, Farrell (J.G., not James T.) and Faulkner.


‘On Rereading’ by Patricia Meyer Spacks (Belknap Press)

While working on that series, I discovered a kind of rereading with which Spacks has dealt throughout her career: “professional rereading,” as she calls it. “People who teach literature reread the same texts again and again, and get paid for it,” she writes. They “annotate and underline and turn down corners,” which is to say that rereading can be, in some occupations, work. Writing a newspaper series is not the same as teaching a class, but one approaches the books under discussion much as though one were teaching them: making notes, trying to interpret the authors’ intentions, forming judgments, searching for quotations that typify the authors’ prose style and shed light on their themes. This certainly does not diminish the pleasure these rereadings entail, but it does complicate them with the burden of work.

In the course of working on this book, Spacks reread, among others, “Alice in Wonderland,” the novels of Jane Austen (her particular favorite), Kingsley Amis’s “Lucky Jim,” J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook,” Charles Dickens’s “Pickwick Papers” and Saul Bellow’s “Herzog.” She had various purposes in mind: to revisit the joys of childhood reading, to encounter old friends once again, to see how books that “seem rooted in their historical moment” hold up over time, to give a second chance to books she had not especially liked or admired the first time around.

These are interesting and for the most part fruitful exercises, though I am baffled that “Lucky Jim” produced “outrage and disgust” in her. She acknowledges that her “position in life has changed since I first read ‘Lucky Jim’: from insecure and frightened instructor to chaired professor emerita,” but it’s hard not to conclude that her position at the top of the academic heap has simply rendered her immune to the wild humor of Amis’s attack on same. On the other hand she “loathed” “Catcher” upon rereading, as did I, and she “found myself irritated by crude sentences, repetitious patterns, political smugness” in Lessing’s feminist ur-text, a book I simply cannot read. Agreeing or disagreeing with her judgments, though, is not really the point; the responses that rereading evokes are the real meat of “On Rereading,” and these she describes with acuity and accuracy.

I do have a couple of bones to pick with what is otherwise an excellent book. No doubt it would be impossible for someone who has spent her entire working life teaching literature to avoid the temptations of lit crit, but “On Rereading” loses much of its steam when it succumbs. Obviously I am even more old-fashioned than Spacks is, but I dislike finding books referred to as “texts,” and I come a-cropper on sentences such as this: “Let me outline a few manifestations of Fielding’s intricate pattern, to suggest how that pattern adumbrates a fiction of moral and psychological depth.” Prose such as that turns the common reader against literature, and it’s too bad Spacks indulges herself in it.

Finally, a small matter that left me completely puzzled. Discussing the work of the once popular, now forgotten John Collier, she writes, parenthetically: “I think, though I’m not quite sure, that Collier wrote one of my favorite stories of all time, about a man who murders his wife by hitting her over the head with a frozen leg of lamb. But maybe it was Roald Dahl, another of my indulgences.” She mustn’t indulge herself very often, for she’s got it almost totally wrong. Dahl’s famous story — no, Collier didn’t write it — originally appeared in Harper’s, then in Dahl’s book “Someone Like You” (1953), and so far as I know has been available in one collection or another ever since. It is called “Lamb to the Slaughter,” and it is the wife who kills the husband with the frozen lamb, which she then cooks and serves to the police. Maybe they don’t do Google at the U.Va. English Department or Harvard University Press, but out of curiosity I Googled “Dahl lamb” and up it popped, first in line. Shame on you, professor emerita.

Jonathan Yardley

ON REREADING

By Patricia Meyer Spacks

Belknap/Harvard Univ. 280 pp. $26.95

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