On Rereading by Patricia Ann Meyer Spacks
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Here we have the professor, as it were, se déshabiller; retired, at her ease, reading. or in this case rereading now just for pleasure. From her grandmotherly first chapter forward, she seems a lovely person; patient, affectionate, happy at the chance to share her enthusiasms and her experience, which is not inconsiderable as she's taught literature at a number of respectable institutions for 50 years. This however is not a memoir of her classroom experience. These aren't rewritten lectures or even scholarly essays per say. The book is a personal examination of what might be the books on her nightstand, not a critical review of even her favorites. Still, it seems, you can take the professor out of the classroom, but... In sharing her childhood identification with Carroll's Alice, for example, she goes on to mention having also taught the book in the 1960s, in a Wellesly College seminar "called The Independent Woman," so that her rereading of it again as she writes this book is informed by both of those earlier experiences of Wonderland. It shows.
And there then is the problem, at least for me. While I applaud her ambition in undertaking this project of rereading, and particularly admire her willingness to give another go to some of the important books she'd never quite liked the first time, or the first few times around, I can't quite like the reading she makes of any of these, favourites of mine or otherwise. It's not for want of a refreshing honesty. She's very forthright in describing what she may have misjudged, as well as what she may have missed. And with the exception of an unfortunate affection for using the ridiculously Biblical term "text" when all she means is book, neither her language nor her style suffers much from the usual pseudo-scientific pretensions and wilful obfuscations of academic criticism. And yet, it can't be helped. She is the reader, and the writer her time before the chalkboards made her. It's unfortunate.
She's quite good at explaining how and why we reread and why more often we ought. She's even better at putting herself into that premise in quite a winning way. The reader quickly comes to be nearly as curious as the author herself as to which book will be the better for rereading, and which won't. The professor's is a refreshingly open mind.
What she can't do is tell a joke. But that's not right. What she can't do is resist explaining a joke. I've never read anyone who managed to explain every hint of pleasure out of Pickwick, for instance, even as she explains how she finally came to appreciate the comedy of Pickwick! it's painful to read. (It's like watching a life-long student of dance, without a hint of rhythm demonstrating the intricacies of the Lindy Hop.) It's not a want of warmth or of enthusiasm for her subject that undoes her here as a personal essayist, presumably it's the company she's kept all these years. She can't seem to keep the chalk off everything she touches.
It's regrettable. There's someone here I rather like, doing something I like doing myself, and with exactly the books I like best, and yet I can't like this book, much as I might want to.
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