Re-reading and the Experience of Narrative

As far as we know, humans have always created narratives.  Before the invention of writing these stories would have been oral, spoken and/or sung, or ritualized as dance or as performances that one might equate to early theater.

In pre and proto literate cultures as well as ones in which only a small percentage of the population can read, stories are often also be reinforced through images meant to remind the person seeing the image of a story they already know.  I have seen visualized representation of narratives in diverse places.  In Thailand there are numerous depictions of the Ramakien (derived from the Hindu Ramayana), and the Khmer and later Cambodian kingdoms also used a syncretic mix of Hindu mythology and local aesthetics and culture to create images and visual narratives in their magnificent temples.  In Japan and China, one may find many “snapshots” of the life of Buddha.  In Western Europe, the stained glass on cathedral windows often depicts Bible stories or episodes from the lives of saints.

There’s a spectacular example of this Biblical illustration in an octagonal chamber that is part of the greater complex of Salisbury Cathedral.  A mural depicting scenes from the Torah (aka Old Testament) works its way around the chamber. When we visited there in 2005, my children and I walked the circuit identifying each scene.  We knew them because in Jewish practice the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) is read in its entirety every year (or across three years), a portion each week.

The experience of going regularly to synagogue and hearing the Torah, a specific portion each week, repeating every year the same, brought me to reflect upon the concept and experience of re-reading.

In our modern culture, we are most accustomed, I think, to the “what comes next” interaction with story.  This might be said to be the most childlike way of absorbing story, and I don’t mean that at all in an insulting manner.  Watching a child’s immersion in story is a remarkable process.  It’s pure.  They are either in the story, or out of it, and if they are in it, then they are embraced by it.  This is true whether they are hearing a story for the first time or the hundredth time, and in my experience children love both the new and the familiar.

As novel readers, and especially in genre novels in which plot may weigh heavily, readers often say they want and enjoy the experience of wanting to know what happens next.  Will the police officer catch the criminal?  Will she escape the rising floodwaters?

The reading experience, the story experience, in such circumstances is tied up with a sense of urgency.

Contrast that with the visualized representations mentioned above.  For those images to make any connection with the viewer beyond an abstract aesthetic appreciation for the artist’s work, the viewer has to already know the story.  If we already know the story, what are we getting out of the interaction with the narrative?

Let me take as my example the story of Joseph in the Torah.  Here are the bare bones of the plot:  Joseph is the favorite son of patriarch Jacob and is not above letting his brothers know it.  Envious, the brothers plot to kill him but end up selling him to slave traders who take him to Egypt.  He serves his master faithfully and loyally but gets in trouble because the master’s wife desires him.  Falsely accused, he lands in prison, from which he eventually extricates himself through good behavior but mostly through accurate dream interpretation, which brings him to the notice of Pharaoh, who makes him his right hand man.  Later, famine strikes, and Jacob sends some of his sons into Egypt to find food.  There is a long business with Joseph concealing his identify from his brothers and accusing the youngest, Benjamin (who happens to be his only full brother;  the others are sons by other mothers), of a theft which Joseph himself has set up by placing a gold cup in the travel bags of Benjamin before the brothers leave for the north.  This is all a convoluted means of achieving reconciliation within the family, which is accomplished.

Joseph’s story in some ways plays out as a self contained piece, quite an extensive one, and very dramatic.  Except that because we read it every year, we know how it turns out.  So the urgency in reading it is not there:  Joseph’s messengers, sent after the brothers because treasure is missing from Joseph’s house, find the gold cup in Benjamin’s bags!  What will happen!

But we already know what will happen. Yet it is possible to read this story every year (and whenever else you want to) with pleasure and interest.  (Really, who gets tired of reading a story in which the protagonist is described as a well built and handsome man?  But I digress.)

So what do we get out of the process of re-reading?

Part of it is the pleasure we get in what is comfortable (and I don’t use comfort as a bad word).  In reading terms, this is called a “comfort read,” a story you go back to as to a comfortable chair.  It is not surprise you are looking for but familiarity or reaffirmation or relaxation.

Re-visiting a story over and over is also a form of culture building.  People in a community or society share familiar touchstones, they know the same stories, they can make jokes that non-acculturated people won’t get.  The stories they value and transmit, communicate what the community is about and what it values.

In addition I want to suggest that the process of re-reading can also be defined as the process of living.

In life, we come back to the same events or choices, back to similar things, and we can never see them in exactly the way we saw them the first time, or the last but one time, when we encountered a similar moment or that same issue.

After the urgency of needing to know what happens next fades, you begin to have the leisure to look at the details.  And then you begin to have the leisure and interest to ask yourself questions.  And then you start to read between the lines.  And then you start to fill in between the lines.  And then you disagree with yourself, you change your mind, or something you learned elsewhere or an experience you had changes the way you look at the whole thing.

Is Joseph’s behavior toward his brothers–deceiving them?–justified because of what they did to him at the beginning of the story?  Is he just getting a bit of petty revenge before doing the right thing?  Or is he being a wise statesman making sure they have changed and grown, as he had, so any generosity he shows them will not be wasted, or turned against him or his master?

But maybe the real answer is not if one, or all, or none of those interpretations is true.  Maybe the real answer is questions:

What do I as the reader need to see between the lines?   What am I capable of seeing within the story?

The words stay the same but we change.  And that makes the story change, for us.

If we read the story one time in the past and moved on to another story, then the story would remain static;  it would never change, because it would be the story we had read at that one moment in our lives.  But because we reread, the story lives with us.

8 thoughts on “Re-reading and the Experience of Narrative

  1. There are certain books that I enjoy re-reading, because the layers of understanding change as I grow and evolve. What is apparent on first reding is different on second reading. Rally enjoyed reading this entry. Thank you!

  2. The flip side of that, of course, are the books one tries to re-read and realize don’t hold up in the same way, or that you have changed too much. That’s why I treasure work that I keep connecting with, even if the threads of connection change.

  3. Those are the best books–books you can re-read as life goes on, and the connection holds, even as it changes and evolves.

    I don’t do a heck of a lot of re-reading, perhaps out of a reluctance that my memories of reading some work will be better than what I think of it, now, if I did re-read it.

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  6. I used to re-read far more than I do now. Now I just don’t have time, with rare exceptions when I really need a comfort read.

  7. One of my favorite parts of re-reading a book is seeing how my perception of the book changes. The first time I read Dune, I thought it was a story about revenge. It is, of course, but I was too young to realize it had other things going on too.

    The second time, in my adolescence, I discovered the love story. Not that I hadn’t noticed it the first time, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it. The third time, I noticed all the religious language and symbolism, partly in light of my own spiritual awakening and partly because of September 11th. The fourth time, I started picking up on the political messages.

    Obviously the book didn’t change. It has the exact same words in it that it had before. But I changed over the years and learned the importance of other things, and the book helped me realize that about myself.

  8. Yes, this exactly.

    That’s a really useful way of looking at it: that re-reading helps us discover and examine how we’ve changed through our evolving relationship with the book

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