On rereading and reenacting

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

This week the Slate Audio Book Club podcast discussed Tom McCarthy's Remainder, in which the book's narrator suffers memory loss after an accident and takes the settlement money he received to reenact things remembered from his past life. Near the end of the discussion, Troy Patterson wondered what the book had to say about rereading, and what we are trying to do when we reread a book for pleasure. Are we, like the narrator of Remainder, trying to reenact the exact same experience of reading the book the first time? Or are we trying to capture a second perspective of a new self, different from the self that read the book the first time?

This caught my attention because I'm rereading a few books myself right now. I just finished William Gibson's latest, Zero History, which forms a trilogy with Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. I wanted to go back and reread the first two, especially Pattern Recognition, which I really enjoyed the first time around, partly for the sake of continuity, to refresh my memory on the characters and story lines that reappeared in the final book. But I also wanted to see if my experience was the same as the first time I read it.

I just finished Pattern Recognition again and found that I didn't enjoy it as much this time. It's not Faulkner, I know, and it's likely that Gibson's writing just doesn't hold up over time. There's a certain novelty to the characters and their lifestyles in the book; it's all very glamorous and high-tech, globetrotting from New York to London to Tokyo and Moscow, and this time the flash had worn off. But I'm a little sorry it didn't hold up, because now when I look at my copy of Pattern Recognition on the shelf it won't promise that same kind of enjoyment if I read it again. This reminds me of a piece from The Millions that I posted earlier, about the pleasures of not reading books you want to like for fear of ruining them if they don’t turn out well. I’d taken this one step further by rereading something I liked once and ruining that experience.

Or did I? Maybe I'll be in a different frame of mind if I pick it up again, a little less jaded, more willing to play along with its simple, straight line plot and stylized world. So I'm back to Patterson's original question: was I looking to reenact my first reading, expecting the exact same reaction, or am I better off now for this second, different response? When is rereading worth it, and when is it better to find something new?