If you change your mind…

Unshelved recently posted a cartoon that summed up many of the regrets re-readers have when they go back to books they used to love. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait. Back? On with the post! So often, I see re-reading discussed in terms like this and many readers end up paraphrasing Thomas Wolfe. I can understand. We aren’t the same readers we were, so we can’t recapture the original experience. I’m going to argue that this isn’t always a bad thing.

087a768b34945d8bc530aae3e00601f2In reading the scholarship about The Reader, I keep coming across anecdotes in which the author of the article admits that they had to change their mind about the book. On their first reading, these authors were taken in by the narrator, Michael Berg. The Reader is a first person novel, so it’s hard not to see the novel this way. But The Reader is problematic. Michael is a remarkably naive, indecisive person. He can’t be trusted, either, because he’s in love. In the second half of the book, it is revealed that the woman Michael was in love with was a former member of the SS and a war criminal. And we’re all just as shocked to discover this as Michael is.

The articles then inform us of the authors’ second impression. Usually, this is a more nuanced view of The Reader. They didn’t hate it; they’re just more aware of what the book as a whole is up to and just how untrustworthy a narrator Michael is. On scholar, Ursula Mahlendorf, comments, “In fact, the book became more personally troublesome the closer I looked at it” [1]. After reading an essay by Cynthia Ozick [2], Jeffrey Roth started to question his first impression: “Had I been led through the medium of fiction into sympathizing with a Nazi mass murderer and, by extension, with the hundreds of thousands of her criminal cohorts?” [3] Both Mahlendorf and Roth then go on to offer intriguing interpretations of The Reader and its characters. And, in both cases, I think these reexaminations are better readings of the book.

This doesn’t happen every time, of course. There are books I loved as a teen and picked up decades later. All I could say was, “What the hell was I thinking? This is shit.” Other times, like when I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was able to find new angles with which I could learn more from the book. I had years of literary criticism classes and even more years of talking about books with people between that first reading and the second reading.

It’s a risk to re-read a book. It might be a disappointment. But the risk is worth it if a second (or third, or 99th reading) unlocks a book to reveal deeper meaning or questions to ponder.

  1. Ursula Mahlendorf, “Trauma Narrated, Read and (Mis)understood: Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader: ‘…Irrevocably Complicit in Their Crimes… .'” Monatshefte 95, no. 3 (2003), 460.
  2. Cynthia Ozick, “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination,” in Cynthia Ozick, Quarrel & Quandary (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 103-119.
  3. Jeffery Roth, “Reading and Misreading The Reader,” Law and Literature 16, no. 2 (2004): 164.

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