We are two books into a three-book cycle examining the Great American Novel, and things are starting to get interesting.
For those who have missed a few updates, we are exploring/critiquing the concept of the Great American Novel through the following three books:
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping
Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road
We discussed Housekeeping last Sunday, and we will be discussing Revolutionary Road on November 24th. We always meet the last Sunday of every month at BookPeople (3rd floor). The conversations have been great, and I expect that to continue. The structure for discussions has been about an hour to an hour and a half long look at what the book is actually doing, then a half an hour discussion of how this book fits (or doesn’t) into the Great American Novel idea.
Again, this has all been a blast, but what I find even more interesting is the different ways members have interacted with these novels based on prior knowledge. Or, these books are canonical to some extent or another, and many of our members are coming to them for a second or third or fourth time, and that type of expertise has led me to conclude once again that re-reading is a far superior thing than reading.
Why I love re-reading and re-readers:
1) Books are social. Books are meant to be read in groups. They are things of ideas and language. Ideas are better shared and language is always communicative. So, when you reread, you have the best conversations. The number one conversation you can now have is with the person you’ll never get away from: yourself. I read Lolita when I was 21 and a beginning reader. I know. I started late. I couldn’t break through. It was, to a small degree, the overwrought sentences and the farcical tone snuggled next to the adult content that kept me at bay, but mostly it was the rape. I couldn’t see through anything, and maybe I shouldn’t have. Now, many years later, I am able to take the book as it is. I’m better able to communicate with Vladimir and better able to get over my younger self. It’s kinda cool, and it’s a much more rich reading experience. It’s not that you get a fuller appreciation of Literature as you get older, but the comparison of a younger read and an older read creates a more dynamic book.
2) The race to the biggest pile is killing readers. The book list is abundant. We like to see the books we ‘should’ be reading, and we like to take score. I know the pull this game can have, but I think it’s time to start trying to resist the race to the many. Looking at someone’s Goodreads account, you can tell if they’ve read 100 books this year or 100 books in their lives. The fast reaction would be to say, ‘You’ve read more, you’re more ‘well-read’.” This reaction is usually wrong. I’ve been reading with The Voyage Out Book Group for just about five years, and I can tell you from experience that how many books you’ve read is not an indicator of how well you will read the book you are currently cracking open. I’m convinced that the only way to become a better reader is to read slower and better and deeper, not wider and more.
3) Stuff gets missed. Nobody reads in a vacuum. When we read we might be distracted or tired or angry or happy. All of these states of being can and do lead to failures of reading. These failures are why I love to read in groups. These failures are also why I like to reread. You pick up on stuff you missed the first time.
4) Time equals intimacy. There’s something powerful about coming to a book for the second time. You know what the book is, and you know what’s going to happen, how it’s going to react, but you also know how to make it work better. All of these things lead to a better understanding of all the things in a novel, but it also leads to a deeper understanding of the few, important things in a book. You become more in tuned with foreshadowing, language, structure, and ideology. Lovely stuff.
I’ll be reading Revolutionary Road this month for the 5th time, and I can’t wait. Next month I’ll be reading Kafka on the Shore for the second time, I’ll be equally as excited.
Join me. I’d love to hear your thoughts.