Why Does Everyone Love It But Me? An Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn

Daniel Mendelsohn’s Manhattan apartment is quiet, classy, tasteful. It is a symphony of stillness and neutrals in stark contrast to the constant motion, precise convictions, and easy chatter of the man who inhabits it. He apologizes for having nothing to offer but ice water, but is generous and forthright in his conversation. Mendelsohn is the author of two memoirs, The Elusive Embrace and The Lost, as well as a translation of the poems of C.P. Cavafy, a scholarly book about Greek tragedy, and two collections of critical essays, How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken and the just published Waiting for the Barbarians. Previously the book critic for New York magazine, he is now a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. He has a Ph.D. in Classics and is a professor at Bard College, and there is the air of the scholar about him. Yet his lean freelancing-and-grad school, ramen-eating days remain a favorite topic, as do current movies and TV shows. I‘ve come to talk to Mendelsohn about that vexed and suddenly trendy topic, the current state of criticism. A piece he published on the New Yorker blog Page-Turner, “A Critic’s Manifesto”, in late August described his love for the New Yorker critics of the 70s and his views on criticism, so it seemed like a good starting point for our discussion, which covered that piece, both of his essay collections, Mad Men, Grandma’s noodle kugel, John Cheever, cultural mushiness, and Battlestar Galactica. The Millions: I read “A Critic’s Manifesto” and thought, “Oh no! You wrote about all of the things I was going to ask you. There goes my thunder.” But I thought we could spend some time talking about the piece and what prompted you to write it. Daniel Mendelsohn: Well, there was this flamboyant review of Dale Peck’s novel which I think people had mixed feelings for because Dale Peck has specialized in that theatrical kind of criticism. I don’t think many people were shedding a tear for him. Then there was the Alex Ohlin piece [both negative reviews in the New York Times Book Review]. Then there was this great outpouring in the literary community. The New Yorker emailed me and said do you want to weigh in on this? And I did. I thought the way the discussion was trending, should negative reviews be published, seemed so egregious. It’s like saying should I use half of my brain? But I wasn’t planning on writing 4,000 words. I just wrote it in one white hot sitting. This is very important to me. I do a lot of different kinds of writing, and I’ll be doing an interview about one of my books and they will be talking about my criticism as a day job. And I laugh, because this is not a day job. This is what a lot of my mind inhabits. I thought there was something that wasn’t being said about what critics are or can be or what criticism is or isn’t and how it functions. TM: There is a formula for criticism in the piece which says that knowledge + taste = meaningful judgment, with an emphasis on meaningful.  What makes a critique meaningful? As you point out, a lot of people have opinions who are not really critics and there are lots of people who are experts on subjects who don’t write good criticism. If everyone is not really a critic, where is the magic? DM: It’s a very interesting question. It is magic, it’s a kind of alchemy. We all have opinions, and many people have intelligent opinions. But that’s not the same. Nor is it the case that great experts are good critics. I come out of an academic background so I’m very familiar with that end of the spectrum of knowledge. I spent a lot of my journalistic career as a professional explainer of the Classics—when I first started writing whenever there was some Greek toga-and-sandals movie they would always call me in—so I developed the sense of what it means to mediate between expertise and accessibility. You use the word magic, which I very well might make part of my stock Homeric epithet about criticism. It’s intangible, what goes on. I know a good critic when I read one. It’s a hard thing to nail down, but that’s why I described it as a kind of recipe. Look, it’s exactly like a recipe. Three people can make grandma’s noodle kugel but only Grandma’s noodle kugel tastes like Grandma’s noodle kugel. TM: Yes. DM: There’s all kinds of intangibles and personality is one of them. Critics have weak spots and strong spots according to their personalities. I think good critics avoid their weak spots, the things you dislike for reasons that might not be totally kosher. It’s not supposed to be some august, abstract, neutral judgment. It’s precisely the opposite. It’s an engagement of a specific persona with a specific work. What is vitiated in this project of criticism right now is the consumerization of everything. Everything is should I get it? Should I click? Should I not click? That’s not the point of criticism. That’s the point of the shopping channel. I’m not trying to persuade someone to go see a movie or to read a book. I’m talking to someone who is interested in that book about what I thought about it. So it’s very subjective and yet it has to ultimately have a wider appeal than just the subject. It’s very much like being a good judge in the legal sense. You bring a lifetime of experience and in the end it’s very specific to the case. TM: That’s an interesting metaphor because what do judges write? Opinions. And what do critics give? They give their opinion. And it should be a meaningful opinion, and have something to back it up. DM: Traction is the word I always come back to. It has to have a purchase on something. I like that idea of the opinion. No judge says this is the law of the cosmos. He says this is my opinion based on everything I know which should be a lot. TM: Which is why good critics can take on a subject which they didn’t know about before and offer an opinion that ends up being meaningful. You talk about people having strengths and weaknesses but I’ve taken assignments on the basis of thinking, oh, that would be interesting to learn about. DM: Yes. Because what’s interesting is your mind as applied to different things. As a reader of Lisa Levy I’m interested in the interaction between your specific mind and that specific thing. This is where the other secret ingredient of journalistic criticism—it can be a blog, it can be the New York Review of Books, that doesn’t matter—is you have editors. And I at the New York Review of Books have one of the greatest editors in the history of editors [Bob Silvers]. Very often some of the best pieces I’ve done, or the strongest pieces, to use Bob’s favorite adjective, are things I would have never have thought of for myself. But that’s what great editors do. They match up a writer with a subject. For example, I think one of the best pieces I ever wrote was about The Producers, the musical [“Double Take” in Broken]. I in a million years would never have chosen to write about The Producers. Bob was very insistent. And in the end it was fruitful. The Mad Men piece [“The Mad Men Account” in Barbarians] was something Bob was insistent for years that I write. For the record no serious critic goes into a job planning to do a takedown. All I heard about Mad Men was that it was great. I watch TV—I watch more TV than most people, trust me. So I was excited. I sat in my bedroom watching with a good friend of mine and we looked at each other after three episodes and I said, “The love is not happening.” Then it becomes interesting. Why does everyone else love it but not me? That becomes the germ of the piece. To pick up on what you were saying before there can be a danger to staying in your comfort zone. It becomes boring. I honestly don’t want to write about many more toga-and-sandal epics. You’ve said what you have to say about a certain range of cultural products. You have your schtick, right? And sometimes you can just not have something to say. Bob wanted me for years to do a big piece about John Cheever. TM: That’s interesting. DM: When the Library of America volumes were coming out. And I spent six months working on this piece. I read every word of, about, for, and by John Cheever. For me it’s always a matter of working up a theory. In the end I didn’t have one. There was nothing I, Daniel Mendelsohn, was going to write about John Cheever that a thousand other people weren’t going to write. So I said this is a waste of your money. It just didn’t speak to me. TM: You mentioned loving the New Yorker critics of the 70s and then elsewhere you named Henry James, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, and Aristotle as critics who influenced you. Is there anyone else you feel like has molded you as a critic? DM: You’re molded by the first people you encounter. I would certainly say Gore Vidal had a huge influence on me. The best thing about Gore Vidal was even when he was writing about something he knew intimately he never came off as academic. I still remember a piece he wrote about Montaigne. It was always conversational, engaging. It was like talking to a very smart person but someone who wasn’t an egghead. I don’t know how else to say it. In terms of influences those early people—Andrew Porter, in the New Yorker, I learned more about music from him than I did for the rest of my life. Particularly opera, which is a great love of mine. And [Helen] Vendler. Look, not everyone is a Vendlerite. She has her own distinctive way of reading things and likes and dislikes but that’s not the point. She has a kind of voice. It’s always so interesting when these people who are so august reveal personal flashes. I still remember this thing she said when Jimmy Merrill died which made an incredible impression on me. That’s the kind of thing I’ve emulated. Your first obligation is to do your homework, obviously, read everything, but there is that subjective magic. It’s very important to reveal your feelings if you have strong feelings during a performance or about a person. You’re allowed to say I burst into tears or something. If it doesn’t do that to you, ultimately, why are you in this business? Those were the people: Kael, Vendler, Porter, [dance critic] Arlene Croce, Whitney Balliett writing about cabaret. They just seemed to have authority. It made that an attractive idea: that if you worked hard enough you could have a kind of authority and speak in a way that other people who were not authorities would find interesting and not threatening. That’s something a lot of academics haven’t figured out. They’re interesting but they’re intimidating or they’re opaque or they’re talking to themselves. TM: Or they are specialists writing for specialists. DM: Which becomes a kind of crazy... TM: Dog eating its tail. DM: Exactly. It’s like the Cylons talking to each other. TM: Are there works that you’ve reviewed that you feel differently about now? DM: Now that’s a good question. That’s a question that should be emailed weeks in advance. It’s likely to be the case that things I was enthusiastic about…on longer reflection the flaws reveal themselves. But that’s not a terrible thing. For example, I had to revisit Jonathan Franzen when I was writing the piece that’s in this book [“Zoned Out” in  Barbarians] about his essays, which I found very revelatory. He is someone who strikes me as a novelist, and these essays are a smaller part of his output. I don’t think it’s where he really lives, and I think that’s a problem. He should be making novels out of them, not essays. I was working on that piece in 2006, but I had reviewed The Corrections when I was book critic at New York magazine which I had very much liked. When I went back to it I started to see things in The Corrections which I hadn’t picked up on the first time around that suggested a worrisome pattern. TM: What’s the most controversial thing you’ve written? DM: Certainly the Mad Men thing was just out of control. It took me a little by surprise. But that demonstrated the intensity of the phenomenon I was describing in the piece: that people are attached to this show in a way that transcends formal aesthetic dramatic considerations. It’s deeply emotional. I couldn’t believe how much stuff was coming back to me about it. I found myself having arguments with nineteen-year-old skateboarders in Seattle. But that’s great. If people want to argue, as long as it’s civil and intelligent I’ll talk to anybody about anything. That’s also part of your job as a critic. Here again I would say my Classics background influences me because when you are a Classicist you are learning how to read a culture through more specific readings of buildings, tragedies, comedies, whatever. In that sense I think it can be your job not just to look at the text itself but to look at the cultural surround, which is why in a piece like that one is allowed to mention the action figures, the Sesame Street episode. This is part of it. In a similar way I wrote about The Lovely Bones [“Novel of the Year” in Broken]. There’s the thing itself, then there is this incredible cultural event around it. I think it’s legitimate to include that. One of the good things about writing for the New York Review of Books is Bob doesn’t care that much about timeliness. So you can take something like The Lovely Bones—that piece was four months after publication if not more—and that allows you to do a different kind of review than if you were doing it for New York magazine and had to get the word out. I think those reviews might actually have more legs—Greater legs? Longer legs?—because they’re anchored in the longer cultural picture rather than in the moment. I won’t know until I’m dead, but it will be interesting to see if those pieces have a little more edge. TM: Well, I think you’ll probably know in two years, five years, ten years, to some extent. DM: Again, as a Classicist, you are used to taking the long view. I was once doing an event and somebody asked, “When you write reviews do you think of the feelings of the writer?” I said that I was trained to think of the writer as having been dead for two thousand years. It’s actually very good because then you focus on the work. You don’t want to be cruel or snarky but to take the work seriously. So that long view is an echo or inheritance from the way I was trained to read things. TM: I was trained in an English department where I studied eighteenth- and nineteenth- century American literature so I have the same attitude. A certain detachment is welcome when it comes to criticism. And I write a blog called Dead Critics. One of the themes I saw in reading both collections was a kind of reaction against sentimentality. You brought up the Lovely Bones piece where I think it’s very much present and in the Mad Men piece also, a certain maudlin— DM: A kind of mushiness... TM: Right, mushiness, that if it’s not predominant in the culture then that the culture seems to celebrate. DM: Yes. I think that’s an excellent summary and I think that we are in a culture of a kind of reflexive celebration of everything and therefore you have to dig in your heels a little and resist. Especially if it’s an overwhelming tsunami of public feeling. Then it’s doubly your duty to use your mind, use your tools, and to dissect the object at hand and to look at it not coldly but coolly. You can find that you like it, I’m not saying that this is necessarily a negative or a destructive enterprise. I do think we’re in a sentimental culture and I think it’s making us a worse culture. I really do. Look, I’m a guy who wrote a book about Greek tragedy which is a very appealing form for me because there is no wiggle room in tragedy. You do things, you suffer the consequences. There’s something about the rigor of that that appeals to me. TM: I’m curious as to what you think some of the other themes are in this collection. DM: I think that what I call the reality problem is a big one. This idea of reality as subjective—obviously in the memoirs thing [“But Enough About Me” in Barbarians] it comes up and that was of great interest to me as I’ve written two memoirs. Certainly I would say that writing about the self is a big theme in this collection. If I were reviewing my collection a consistent theme—talk about The Producers, this is certainly the theme of that piece but it’s also the theme of the Julie Taymor piece [“Why She Fell” in Barbarians]—is how because of the seductions of pop culture interesting artists end up betraying themselves. Sometimes a disappointment is in an artist that I liked and somehow the work ends up betraying itself. Sometimes the sentimentality, the mushiness can end up making a work mean the opposite of what it’s supposed to mean. TM: It’s in the Alan Hollinghurst piece too [“In Gay and Crumbling England” in Barbarians]. DM: Yes. I think that’s happening to Alan Hollinghurst. It’s not a sinister thing, it just happens. TM: I’m thinking about some of your positive reviews, like the one of The Master [“The Passion of Henry James” in Broken]. On the whole it is very positive but at the end you have that feeling about Colm Tóibín, that he’s on the verge of doing that. One of the themes that I found running through both collections is about a kind of moral failure, or people who face moral dilemmas and either make the wrong choice or have a failure of nerve. They can’t quite follow through on the promise of the work. DM: Very few people can carry through an entire career the wonderful, momentous, originary strangeness of the vision that got them noticed in the first place. Hollinghurst is a great example. The Swimming Pool Library and The Folding Star are probably two of the most interesting novels of the past twenty years. But you’ve remained you, and the world keeps going. Very few people—and usually they are just very great artists, and I don’t use the word great lightly—are the ones who can just keep going. Picasso, Shakespeare, Balanchine, people who are just beyond time. What happens to most people is they start out, they’re subversive, they’re quirky, they’re interesting, they have a new way of dealing with a subject. It puts them on the map. But then, you know, you win a lot of awards, you have a house in the country...And whatever your edge was, it goes away. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, you keep working. I did not enjoy The Stranger’s Child. Clearly, something had shifted. Art goes on forever but artists are mortal and careers have arcs and you get into a groove. It’s like what we were talking about before. Very few people transcend their position within which the moment that they live. We exist in time, as writers and critics and artists. It’s going to happen unless you are very exceptional. I think that’s an interesting observation about that as a theme. Probably because I’m afraid it’s going to happen to me. I’m sure someone is writing a piece about my book right now saying Mendelsohn has betrayed himself. TM: One last question. Is there anything or anyone you are dying to write about but haven’t yet? DM: The great regret that I have is that I would have loved to have written a really major piece about Battlestar Galactica, which I think is one of the greatest things to have ever been on TV. It’s extraordinary. I would love to take that thing apart. I thought it was so exciting and I was just evangelical about it. I think the most interesting thing that is going on in culture right now is television. There’s a whole Classical angle, an Aeneid thing going on, but also the Iraq war. People have discussed different aspects of it but I would come at it whole. TM: I’ve never seen anything written about it that I thought was great. DM: I also thought it was deeply philosophical in the real sense of the word. It made you think. It was an existential problem that was established by this genius idea of having these robots be indistinguishable from humans even by themselves. And they milked it. They dramatized it. That was my complaint about Mad Men. I don’t think the issues were dramatized. They were announced or advertised. But this existential, philosophical issue in Battlestar was dramatized. When the first officer [Colonel Tigh] realized that he was a Cylon and there was the scene between him and the captain. That was wrenching! That was drama. Then there is the religious thing, about monotheism and polytheism. TM: There’s so many things. There is a psychoanalytic thing that is very strong, about are we our fantasies? Are we who we think we are? There’s a nationalist thing— DM: The whole political angle, the civilian government versus the military government. It’s really gripping. And the acting was so incredibly great. From the minute I started watching it I thought I was going to die, I was so happy. So that’s my big regret. I really think this needs to be done. And I would like to do it.

A New Salvation: Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists

Religion tends to bring out the crazy in people. From speaking in tongues and  suicide bombers to silent retreats and complicated dietary laws, the daily acts performed in the name of God are hard for the atheist to understand. Since faith is by definition irrational, discussions about religion can quickly veer into extremism, with no room for rational exchange. What Alain de Botton aims to do, however, in his Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, is not necessarily to bring about world peace through some sort of fanatic-atheist summit (though that is a worthwhile cause should anyone want to attempt it), nor is it to attempt to prove whether or not any religion is true. Rather, de Botton, an avowed atheist, takes a strictly utilitarian approach to religion in the book: “it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting, and consoling — and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.” De Botton looks to why religions were invented — to foster a sense of belonging to a community and to deal with the harsh realities of life (illness, death, marriage, what have you) — and cherry picks rituals that can be adapted into secular life. The results are sometimes farfetched but nevertheless intriguing. De Botton expects neither the religious nor the secular will be crazy about his proposals. Since one of de Botton’s own metaphors for this is that religions will protest about his approach that they “are not buffets from which choice elements can be selected on whim,” his idea for a kind of communal restaurant based partly on the original Christian mass (which used to be a meal, a la the Last Supper) and partly on the Jewish Sabbath meal is a ripe example of how de Botton sees the potential for borrowing from religion to make modern life less alienating. The contemporary restaurant, he notes, provides a perfect space in which strangers could share a meal and perhaps something more — some sense of community. Instead, the average restaurant merely reaffirms “tribal divisions:” “the focus is on the food and the decor, never on opportunities for extending and deepening affections.” He suggests this concept of an Agape (from the Greek meaning love) restaurant would bring strangers together to share a meal and then share their deepest thoughts and feelings by asking each other questions from a Book of Agape. Examples of such dialogue starters include, “‘Whom can you not forgive?’” and “‘What do you fear?’” De Botton argues that though this would surely seem a strange exercise at first, gradually patrons would come to appreciate the authentic communication and opportunity to get to know people of other backgrounds and creeds. His wishes are utterly utopian: “The poor would eat with the rich, the orthodox with the secular, the bipolar with the balanced, workers with managers, scientists with artists. The claustrophobic pressure to derive our satisfactions from our existing relationships would ease, as would our desire to gain status by accessing so-called elite circles.” Frankly, it is hard to imagine anyone volunteering to participate in such an activity, when it is difficult enough to maintain those relationships we are supposed to be deriving satisfactions from: our marriages-slash-romantic partnerships, our families, our friends are hard enough to spend time with without giving up precious free time to share our innermost thoughts with strangers. De Botton’s ideas might be good for the community, but are they actually reasonable to expect people to work into their lives? A more tenable idea of de Botton’s is the substitution of culture or secular texts for religious ones — not that we should worship at the altar of great writers and artists, but that we can “draw on culture with the same spontaneity and rigor which the religious apply to their holy texts.” A main tenet of de Botton’s thinking is that we should allow ourselves (speaking as the atheistic we) to be transported by secular art and culture, to be moved by it as wholly as religious people are by the Bible or the Koran. Perhaps he goes too far in suggesting that “secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African American Pentecostal preachers,” suggesting a call-and-response format in lectures about Keats and Adam Smith that seems like he’s maybe seen a few too many movies about the American Civil Rights Movement. Point taken, however — nothing wrong with a bit of enthusiasm about Romantic poetry or capitalist theory or whatever happens to move you. Amen. De Botton has many other interesting ideas about borrowing from religion — making museums more like churches, thinking about vacations as pilgrimages, trying to find ways to share our woes and joys outside the structure of traditional rites and rituals. It’s worth mentioning that de Botton is heavily involved in the School of Life, a center in London that helps people find meaning through unconventional means like bibliotherapy, where a person listens to your woes and suggests a reading list to console you. He seems to be on a mission to improve people’s lives by unorthodox means. Religion for Atheists has a few decent ideas mixed in with some outlandish ones, but the reader never doubts de Botton’s intentions are anything but pure. De Botton is staking out new territory in suggesting atheists might find some value in religion, and if his suggestions are more provocative than practical it is because he believes in the significance of his mission. It is a wholly sincere and serious book (and despite that stodgy description it’s lively as well), and for maintaining such a balance de Botton deserves some praise. It is not easy to keep your wits about you where religion is concerned.

The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading

In his often anthologized essay “On Reading Old Books,” William Hazlitt wrote, “I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire to ever read at all.” This is a rather extreme position on rereading, but he is not alone. Larry McMurtry made a similar point: “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security. How nice to be able to return to what won’t change. When I sit down at dinner with a given book, I want to know what I’m going to find.” In her recent study On Rereading Patricia Meyers Spacks uses McMurtry as an example of someone who rereads to stubbornly avoid novelty, and unapologetically so. His refusal, like Hazlitt’s, to read anything new makes rereading a conservative if comfortable experience, vehemently opposed to the possible shock of the new. Spacks herself feels slightly differently. She writes, “No reader can fail to agree that the number of books she needs to read far exceeds her capacities, but when the passion for rereading kicks in, the faint guilt that therefore attends the indulgence only serves to intensify its sweetness.” In Spacks’s scenario rereading is a forbidden pleasure, tantalizing and, contra Hazlitt and McMurtry, with an element of time wasted -- an extravagance. The choice Hazlitt and McMurtry easily make weighs more heavily on Spacks, who knows she forgoes a new book every time she picks up an old one. Yet there are far more positive spins put on rereading in Spacks’s book and elsewhere. Pleasure, after all, needn’t be a negative. Elsewhere in his essay, Hazlitt brings up a point which is raised often by rereaders: “In reading a book which is an old favorite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links on the chains of personal identity. They are landmarks and guides in our journey through life.” This double perspective is often mentioned as one of the pleasures of rereading, especially of reading books from childhood. Hazlitt writes rhapsodically of opening Tom Jones and feeling like a child again, and Spacks, too, makes a tour of her childhood reading to see what holds up to adult scrutiny. She finds Alice's Adventures in Wonderland still enchants, but the Narnia series feels flat and lifeless. Ferdinand the Bull delights, as does The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the adventure of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped enthralls her. Thus rereading is a way back into the past, to a time when one was more innocent or more susceptible to the powers of imagination or just younger, and different. It inspires introspection and self-reflection through the workings of memory: How am I the same person as the last time I read this book? How am I different? Rereading is also a form of pedagogy. To know a book you have to reread it, as Harold Bloom writes in his How to Read and Why (though he is apt to plea, as he does here, for careful reading rather than repetition; it is taken for granted that only through multiple readings will knowledge will seep in). “We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading is the search for a difficult pleasure.” Though rereading we get to know a book beyond its surface elements, we read more deeply and are rewarded not with an easy experience but with a richer one. We learn to take a book apart, pick out crucial scenes, ponder characters’ motives, see its flaws, tease out its themes. In part, through rereading we become skilled critics. Spacks too explores the professional aspect of her rereading: as a teacher and literary critic, she has read certain books over and over as part of her job and been surprised when they surprise her, or when students find aspects of a book she has passed over in her multiple readings. Even the pros sometimes miss a detail in Moby-Dick, or the book Bloom confesses to reading twice a year, Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers. To really love a book we must spend time with it, and that means rereading -- for love, too, falls under the heading of Bloom’s “difficult pleasure.” Anne Fadiman’s collection of essays culled from the “Rereadings” column she edited in The American Scholar explores the strong feelings that arise between rereader and book. In her introduction to the collection, Fadiman claims that “each [column] was a miniature memoir at whose heart lay that most galvanic of topics, the evolving nature of love.” Some of the most memorable essays in Rereadings involve letting go of love, or becoming disillusioned by rereading. For example, Luc Sante’s essay on Enid Starkie’s biography of Arthur Rimbaud describes a vehement case of hero-worship in which the idolatrous fever eventually breaks. You see, Sante confides, “At some point before adolescence, I had decided to be a child prodigy,” and he chose writing as his field. At 13 he encountered Rimbaud in a poetry anthology, and soon after he found the aforementioned biography “with a picture of a big-haired, pensive, beautiful adolescent” on the cover. He read it everywhere he went, and realized he had chosen a remarkable idol: “He was hipper than anyone alive.” Sante was smitten. Yet there were attendant issues with such a role model: “He wasn’t even divisible into parts, you couldn’t be half a Rimbaud. The alternative to being Rimbaud was to be nothing.” Inevitably, Sante grew out of his passion. “I can reread the Starkie biography today…and no longer feel as though I will have to set the book down at some point and go put on music or think about something else, because the race is over now.” Rimbaud has won; he won by never having a Rimbaud to worship. But then, he also never had the adulthood Sante has, or the knowledge that has come with it. Rimbaud lost too by never growing up, by his truncated biography, by always coming to a tragic early end. Vivian Gornick’s essay in Fadiman’s collection also deals with lost love. “When I was in my twenties, my friends and I read Colette as others read the Bible.” Colette is the only writer who can describe their condition, the way they had to live. “The condition, of course, was that we were women, and that Love (as we had long known) was the territory upon which our battle with Life was to be pitched.” Like Sante worshipping Rimbaud, Gornick and her friends’ fixation on Colette had its problems. They were intellectual girls (young women, really), readers, of course, who lived out their fantasies in books. Gornick writes of their identification with the great literary heroines, Henry James’s Isabel Archer and George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, “passionate young women destined for tragedy at the hands of famously unworthy men.” Yet they were also new women, championing Mary McCarthy and relishing their sexual independence. Colette combined these two forces, or so it seemed. “She seemed to know everything that actually went on inside a woman ‘in the grip.’ Her wisdom riveted your eyes to the page, gathered up your scattered, racing inattention. It made A Woman in Love as serious a concern for the novelist as God or War.” Gornick’s descriptions of communing with Colette’s books, particularly The Vagabond and The Shackle, are hungry and spiritual. How would they stand up to rereading? Not well, is the short answer. After 30 years they seem melodramatic, contrived, alienating. Though she says Colette’s “writing is incomparable,” Gornick exclaims of the lovers, “But what appalling strangers these people are to one another! Not a speck of reality between them. How preoccupied [Colette] is with aging. Why hadn’t I noticed that before? And the aimlessness of them all, women and men alike -- especially in The Shackle. No one has anything to do but lie around brooding about love.” Note that love has lost its capital letter for Gornick. These novels about passion felt dispassionate. Where in her 20s Gornick had believed love was the territory she would stake her claim on, life has intervened and shown her their lives are much larger. Gornick is struck by how much smaller Colette’s world seems, and though the comparison is with her first reading, it is also with her own world. Gornick’s final thought is a melancholy one: “I want the reading of Colette to be the same as it once was, but it is not. Yet I am wrenched by the beauty of that which no longer feels large, and can never feel large again.” Rereading has taken something away from Gornick that she valued, an illusion about love, and life, that cannot be retrieved. Rereading does not have to lead to loss, however. Plenty of people reread because they find it soothing, fortifying even. And a disproportionate number of those rereaders seem to pick up a novel by Jane Austen. When Patricia Spacks started researching rereading as a topic, it was Jane Austen who was most often the answer to the question of who people reread (especially women, it seems, men, according to nothing more than anecdotal evidence, keep a volume of Tolkien nearby). She asked a young woman in China why Austen was her favorite author, and then a group of Holocaust survivors who met to read Austen aloud to one another. From their answers, Spacks concluded that Austen meant civilization. “We may plausibly surmise that a considerable proportion of Austen’s many rereaders, from adoring members of the Jane Austen Society to casual pleasure-seekers, find comfort in civilized discourse: carefully formed plots that end predictably in satisfactory marriages, style that reflects the author’s dominion over her material, characters rewarded and punished according to their deserts.” The fact that her world is one that values words -- think of the verbal sparring between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice -- also gives the rereader an extra jolt. Spacks writes, “It’s not just that Austen teaches us about life -- life teaches us about Austen.” Allegra Goodman’s essay in Anne Fadiman’s collection, “Pemberly Previsited,” traces the motions of one Austen rereader, from a girl too young to understand much of Austen’s subtlety to a young mother whose own mother has just died and is looking for solace in Austen’s world. It is her third reading of Pride and Prejudice, a tribute to her mother who loved Austen, that really makes the novel click into place for her. “What I found irresistible this time was the way Austen combines astute social satire with fairy tale. The combination didn’t seem awkward to me, but inspired. The satire is exquisite, while the fairy tale is viscerally satisfying.” While after her second reading Goodman had found the book lacking compared with more complex or darker classic novels, this time it seems just right. As Goodman wryly notes, “A dark imagination is, perhaps, more appealing before you know anything about darkness.” In a time of darkness, Austen has provided a fairy tale, but one with enough grounding in reality to viscerally satisfy her. It is hard to ask more of a book. Goodman keeps rereading Pride, finding more and more to admire in it, and coming to this conclusion about the process: “I think unfolding is what rereading is about. Like pleated fabric, the text reveals different parts of its pattern at different times. And yet every time the text unfolds, in the library, or in bed, or upon the grass, the reader adds new wrinkles. Memory and experience press themselves into each reading so that each encounter informs the next.” This image echoes one Spacks uses, that of the palimpsest (an ancient scroll where a text is scraped off and another written over it), where each reading is layered upon the last. “Although one never altogether recovers previous layers,” Spacks writes, “they add texture and meaning to the ultimate version.” As long as we keep rereading, however, we never have the ultimate version of a book. Whether we go back again and again to a classic (and the ability to hold up to rereading is how a book becomes a classic) or pick up an old favorite to see how it has fared or dig deep into the treasures of our youth, rereading is an experiment that is bound to change us, and to change our impressions of the books we read. Rereading can certainly surprise, it can instruct, and it can make us feel safe. Maybe it is not indulgent to reread a book, but a way to learn; and what is any sort of reading but a way to learn, whether it is something new about the world or just something new about ourselves? Image:Cote/Flickr