Sunday, May 31, 2009

reading and re-reading

A couple of stories have been making the rounds this week, reminding me how deep and powerful reading can be.

Top at the list is Sonia Sotomayor and her love of Nancy Drew, a biographical detail that features in the White House's official press release about her nomination and has been repeated in countless stories. Today's Sunday New York Times expands the significance of Nancy Drew and the Supreme Court: it's not only Sotomayor who read her as a girl, but Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Part of the article focuses on the appeal a "nice" girl like Nancy holds for women challenging male professions. Nancy Drew gets to rule her own life, be as smart as she wants to me, have adventures, and still be loved and respected. But the article also includes a second observation from Melanie Rehak, author of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her:
A charge “rightly leveled” against the early books, Ms. Rehak says, “is that they were racist — all the villains were ‘foreign’ or ‘swarthy,’ and all the African-Americans were portrayed as second class in terms of intelligence, profession, etc.” She said that “one of the things I find so interesting about Sotomayor’s citing of Nancy is that even she, as a Puerto Rican child, just looked past all of that and took away with her the essence of Nancy.”
I would take a slightly different observation from this. Rather than seeing Sotomayor as someone who looked past what was troubling, I see her reading of Nancy Drew as an instance of resistant reading--she reshaped the narrative and its characters to be what she needed them to be. I'm not sure she was resisting in the subversive way that Judith Fetterly explored, turning the assumptions of a text against themselves, but I would certainly guess that Sotomayor's affection for Nancy Drew included a thoughtful response to the entire text.

Although I haven't seen it reflected in the stories about her, I wonder whether Sotomayor has gone back and reread Nancy Drew and what she makes of them now. If Nancy was the reason she wanted to become a lawyer, what does she think of her now that she is a judge? That kind of rereading and revisiting is the subject of Verlyn Klinkenborg's latest Editorial Observer, a feature of the NYT that I usually find goofy, with lots of reminscing about farmers and rural life that seems overly nostalgic to me. But this piece, "Some Thoughts on the Pleasures of Being a Re-Reader," was a sweet tribute to the joys of reading again and again.

Perhaps it spoke to me because I am in the middle of rereading, as always. Rereading is the nature of my scholarship, of course. I can't begin to count the number of times I have now read King Lear (and read resistingly), and I know that I'll be rereading As You Like It more times than I really care to consider. But it's a big part of my pleasure reading, too. There's the rereading I do with my children (Charlotte's Web, as I've blogged about, and Richard Scarry, too). But there are also the books I come back to on my own, over and over. This time I find myself working through Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time at the incredibly slow pace of a couple of pages a month, reading a heavily and entertainingly annotated edition.

As Klinkenborg writes, rereading is something of a misnomer:
The real secret of re-reading is simply this: It is impossible. The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the reader always does. Pip is always there to be revisited, but you, the reader, are a little like the convict who surprises him in the graveyard — always a stranger.
And that, of course, is the reason to reread. I am sometimes horrified to read something I once loved, only to discover I can't stand it, or I can't stand who I was that I loved it. Sometimes subsequent rereadings change the book. Wide Sargasso Sea forever shifted Jane Eyre for me, in ways that make Charlotte Bronte's book a richer experience. Villette changed Jane Eyre for me, too, and I continue to reread and love both of those books. (I'm actually also reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I just couldn't resist when I found a deeply discounted copy. I fear that book might have peaked with its opening sentence--"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains."--but maybe I'll be lucky and love the whole thing. I'm not sure it will change Jane Austen for me, though.)

The other story that has been going around is Kanye West's dismissal of reading and books. I don't really want to engage with that other than to point you to Cake Wrecks' wonderful antidote: a series of pictures of book-related cakes, all of which pay tribute to the joys of reading and to the yumminess of cakes. (h/t bookn3rd via her tweet)

Happy reading to you all!


Ceirseach said...

Well, I started to respond to this, then failed to stop, and it got too long and turned into a post, which is over on my blog now. How far can we decide, as adults, how a child should be reading a text anyway, when the moral issues we see as gaping pits as often as not look like smooth ground to them, for the eye to skip over in favour of the shiny castle or magic cave that dominates the landscape? Like you said, I'd fight to keep my treasured childhood memories of some books, rather than overlay them with adult eyes.

Sarah Werner said...

I'm glad you found my post productive. It's certainly true that children read differently than adults do--just as they think differently and behave differently. I'm not sure that I'd want to preserve my childhood relationship with my books, though. I actually often enjoy the disjunctures between my childhood memories and my adult self. Sometimes it's that disjuncture that is the closest we can get to remembering how we once saw the world.

StephLove said...

When I lost my job about four years ago, I decided to re-read the collected works of Stephen King. (Horror was one of my specialties back in my professor days.) I only went up to works published in 1999, because the others I'd read too recently. It took 3.5 years and was deeply satisfying. I can't fully explain why, but it gave me a cathartic place to go when I was needed it, a place full of peril and loss and grief but also full of stories of survival. I'm still struggling with the question of who I am now that I'm not that I'm not the person I thought I was going to be, but re-reading books helps me re-read my life.

Sarah Werner said...

Thanks for this lovely comment, Steph. I definitely agree that there are books that we return to over and over again, not necessarily as a retreat from the world (although sometimes that's the case for me) but often as a way of rethinking our world. Re-reading our lives, as you so wonderfully put it, is such a powerful experience. I think that might be part of the reason I can't get rid of books. I hang onto even the crappy ones I don't think I'll ever re-read! But they are a way of engaging and re-engaging with our lives that is always potentially useful.