On Reading, Forgetting, and Re-Reading

Editor’s note: this post was originally published on Medium.



A couple of months ago, while I was in line waiting to get a Caffè Americano at my local coffee shop, the barista inquired about my reading habits. I noted my favorite science fiction novels:Slaughterhouse-Five and Brave New World. The barista then asked me about Fahrenheit 451, which I read early in my youth. “The ending was amazing, wasn’t it?” she inquired. At this point, a mild shock came over me, my cheeks reddened, and I muttered “Yeah, definitely.” The truth is: I’ve read the novel, but have forgotten almost the entire plot—ending included.

Ian Crouch, writing in a recent piece in The New Yorker, likened reading and forgetting with the following anecdote:

This forgetting has serious consequences—but it has superficial ones as well, mostly having to do with vanity. It has led, at times, to a discomfiting situation, call it the Cocktail Party Trap (though this suggests that I go to many cocktail parties, which is itself a fib). Someone mentions a book with some cachet that I’ve read—a lesser-known work of a celebrated writer, say Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” to take an example from my shelf—and I smile knowingly, and maybe add, “It’s wonderful,” or some such thing. Great so far, I’m part of the in-crowd—and not lying; I did read it. But then there’s a moment of terror: What if the person summons up a question or comment with any kind of specificity at all? Basically, what if she aims to do anything other than merely brag about having read “Daniel Deronda”?

My very brief encounter at the coffee shop still didn’t sway my mind on re-reading. Yes, I felt embarrassed about the episode, but the embarrassment did not deter my pride (re-reading is silly!). But about a month ago, things started to unravel. It began with my friend Steven’s suggestion to read John Steinbeck’s classic, East of Eden. I’ve long considered this novel to be in my top five books I’ve ever read: for the story, for the writing, for the allegory. I distinctly remember, how one summer before my junior year of high school, I spent four days, non-stop, engrossed in the novel (I’m a slow reader, I admit). But after Steven suggested reading the novel, I replied in the most glowing way possible: “A sublime selection. For anyone deliberating on whether to read this magnum opus: do it, and you will be better for it.”

And yet. I didn’t re-read East of Eden.

It was only during the discussion of the novel that someone by the name of Blake struck me as extremely profound. “Eugene, the first time you read East of Eden was in your teenage years. That was half a lifetime ago. Think about that.” And Blake is right. When put in that context, so much has transpired in my life over the past fifteen years, that I’ve had an epiphany: re-reading should be a pleasure in its own right. I shouldn’t feel guilt in re-reading; on the contrary, I should take comfort and joy in rediscovering a book which enlightened me so much in the past.

Ian Crouch notes:

If we are cursed to forget much of what we read, there are still charms in the moments of reading a particular book in a particular place. What I remember most about Malamud’s short-story collection “The Magic Barrel” is the warm sunlight in the coffee shop on the consecutive Friday mornings I read it before high school. That is missing the more important points, but it is something. Reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade.

I recollect not only when I read East of Eden, but how: in my room, in the downstairs basement curled up with a warm blanket, outside on the patio with butterflies floating in the distance. It is perhaps more wonderful to remember the sensory associations with reading than the plot.

And so, when 1984 was announced as the next book we were going to read in book club, I wasn’t going to make any excuses: I was going to re-read this novel. And I am glad I did. There were so many specifics from the novel which I didn’t remember that it felt like reading the novel for the first time.

My obstinate attitude on re-reading took more than ten years to come around. If you currently rationalize re-reading like I used to, I encourage you to consider re-reading not only as a remedy to forgetting, but as a profoundly new, joyous experience.


George Orwell’s 1984 by Any Other Name

What if George Orwell’s novel 1984 was titled differently? According to a letter he wrote to his publisher, Frederic Warburg, in 1948, Orwell was considering two names for his novel: 1984 and The Last Man in Europe:

You will have had my wire by now, and if anything crossed your mind I dare say I shall have had a return wire from you by the time this goes off. I shall finish the book, D.V., early in November, and I am rather flinching from the job of typing it, because it is a very awkward thing to do in bed, where I still have to spend half the time. Also There will have to be carbon copies, a thing which always fidgets me, and the book is fearfully long, I should think well over 100,000 words, possibly 125,000. I can’t send it away because it is an unbelievably bad MS and no one could make head or tail of it without explanation. On the other hand a skilled typist under my eye could do it easily enough. If you can think of anybody who would be willing to come, I will send money for the journey and full instructions. I think we could make her quite comfortable. There is always plenty to eat and I will see that she has a comfortable warm place to work in.

I am not pleased with the book but I am not absolutely dissatisfied. I first thought of it in 1943. I think it is a good idea but the execution would have been better if I had not written it under the influence of TB. I haven’t definitely fixed on the title but I am hesitating between NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR and THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE.

So who knows how things would have turned out differently if we came to know 1984 by another title. Certainly, we wouldn’t ever see the premise behind this Apple commercial, which introduced the Apple Macintosh personal computer for the first time:

Original New York Times Review of George Orwell’s 1984

From the 1949 New York Times review of George Orwell’s 1984 (which was written in 1948 and published in 1949):

James Joyce, in the person of Stephen Dedalus, made a now famous distinction between static and kinetic art. Great art is static in its effects; it exists in itself, it demands nothing beyond itself. Kinetic art exists in order to demand; not self-contained, it requires either loathing or desire to achieve its function. The quarrel about the fourth book of ”Gulliver’s Travels” that continues to bubble among scholars — was Swift’s loathing of men so great, so hot, so far beyond the bounds of all propriety and objectivity that in this book he may make us loathe them and indubitably makes us loathe his imagination? — is really a quarrel founded on this distinction. It has always seemed to the present writer that the fourth book of ”Gulliver’s Travels” is a great work of static art; no less, it would seem to him that George Orwell’s new novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a great work of kinetic art. This may mean that its greatness is only immediate, its power for us alone, now, in this generation, this decade, this year, that it is doomed to be the pawn of time. Nevertheless it is probable that no other work of this generation has made us desire freedom more earnestly or loathe tyranny with such fullness.

”Nineteen Eighty-four” appears at first glance to fall into that long-established tradition of satirical fiction, set either in future times or in imagined places or both, that contains works so diverse as ”Gulliver’s Travels” itself, Butler’s ”Erewhon,” and Huxley’s ”Brave New World.” Yet before one has finished reading the nearly bemused first page, it is evident that this is fiction of another order, and presently one makes the distinctly unpleasant discovery that it is not to be satire at all.

In the excesses of satire one may take a certain comfort. They provide a distance from the human condition as we meet it in our daily life that preserves our habitual refuge in sloth or blindness or self-righteousness. Mr. Orwell’s earlier book, Animal Farm, is such a work. Its characters are animals, and its content is therefore fabulous, and its horror, shading into comedy, remains in the generalized realm of intellect, from which our feelings need fear no onslaught. But ”Nineteen Eighty-four” is a work of pure horror, and its horror is crushingly immediate.

The motives that seem to have caused the difference between these two novels provide an instructive lesson in the operations of the literary imagination. ”Animal Farm” was, for all its ingenuity, a rather mechanical allegory; it was an expression of Mr. Orwell’s moral and intellectual indignation before the concept of totalitarianism as localized in Russia. It was also bare and somewhat cold and, without being really very funny, undid its potential gravity and the very real gravity of its subject, through its comic devices. ”Nineteen Eighty-four” is likewise an expression of Mr. Orwell’s moral and intellectual indignation before the concept of totalitarianism, but it is not only that.

It is also — and this is no doubt the hurdle over which many loyal liberals will stumble — it is also an expression of Mr. Orwell’s irritation at many facets of British socialism, and most particularly, trivial as this may seem, at the drab gray pall that life in Britain today has drawn across the civilized amenities of life before the war.

Here is the rest of that review. I first read 1984 when I was in high school. It wasn’t required reading at my school, but I think it should have been.
(via Kottke)