Theories on Reading and Rereading
from Anna Karenina
Try reading Anna Karenina after you’ve had a husband, a lover, a child, two children or more, after going through a separation. Try recalling your deepest infatuation and then having a child from that relationship. Try imagining the horror of feeling distant from the child you gave birth to. Ask yourself about the taste of regret. Try gazing out at the train tracks and picturing what would happen to a body after the collision. Try to consider the feel of the tracks – are they cold? – and how the body hardens. If a body can indeed harden to the idea of death. Try to carry on writing the story in a book after you’ve finished reading it, as a form of solace. Try to come up with a story for a character that has almost no body and no personality, as with babies and small children in books, and in this alternate reality, in this better world, have the child, a girl, not feel drawn to the peaceful emptiness of death. There is no shame, there is no self-hatred or hatred of her body, which desires and is able to love and then to not love and to feel repulsed. The story picks up in a place where love is equal. So much so that people speak of equality but not of equality in love. You shall love women and you shall love men, whether your neighbor or not, with the same freedom.
Start from the beginning. Think of it as a real story. Everything just as it was written except instead of a male protagonist, a female protagonist. Give her a woman’s name. But keep the surname, Casanova, at all costs, for maximum disorientation.
Believe in that woman called Casanova. Believe a woman – who really existed – can be that woman, regardless of whether she is a daughter, a wife, a mother. Believe in the existence of these sorts of words – timeless, constantly evolving, conjuring a collective imaginary – for ‘woman’.
from a 1960s bestseller
Don’t reread that book your dad gave you, which he may not have known was about sex. Lots of sex. Hold on to the notion that, yes, books about sex can be passed from father to daughter as recommended reading.
Don’t reread that book, since it probably isn’t suitable for a person over forty who’s read a lot since she was fifteen.
Certain books shouldn’t be reread. On rereading you may discover a completely different story from the one you first read. After all, the book might not be about sex or freedom or pleasure – common subjects in the 60s – but about domination (also common in the 60s). It might just perpetuate widely held beliefs about sexuality. And not even give you a hard-on.
By not rereading it, that book will always remain the book that put forward the story of a particular moment in the life of a reader, in this case a girl – a virgin – who knew nothing about sex and nothing about being a woman.
Reread the great British nineteenth-century novel, on the beach, maybe, at your own pace, well-rested and during a moment of happiness, and savor every word, knowing in advance that the female protagonist will not disappoint: that she isn’t futile or corrupt, not too pretty, nor vain, that she isn’t jealous or neurotic, not scheming, not perfect, not irresistible, not prone to melancholy, not overly ambitious, not a woman like so many women in other novels, and not just nineteenth-century ones.
from a Book of Hours
Why did these books become associated with women? Was it because women prayed more? Because they were freer during the day? Because one way or another they had to organize their time at home? Because they’ve always loved books? Because they were aware that few women read, and took books more seriously? Because the zealotry of prayer, and of committing to memory the origin myths of society, suited them?
You need only study their illustrations and illuminations to see that they weren’t purely religious, that they served some purpose, maybe to stand in for something that was missing – and would always be missing.
from a favorite story (by Clarice Lispector)
The story in question takes place in Rio de Janeiro, in a different time. In this story, nothing happens. There’s no dialogue. A woman goes shopping then returns home, and for a moment – a few minutes or even hours – questions her life.
We love certain pieces of fiction because we identify with the characters, but sometimes we love certain pieces of fiction because we sense we will one day identify with the characters. We let ourselves be lured in by the prophecy; we fulfill it.
We enjoy a text, reread it, offer it up in shimmering Christmas wrapping paper. We enjoy it candidly and incorruptibly, because though we’ve grown close to the protagonists, we’ve not yet turned into them. In this case, the reader was not yet a woman capable of dropping a packet of eggs on the tram and feeling the world shatter around her, shaken by the obscenity of watching a blind man and by the idea that her children might never know her, not really; a woman full of thoughts during the day, quickly forgotten at night.
from countless classics for children and young adults
When recalling the – unparalleled – joy of reading as a child and as a teenager, do not forget that peculiar sense of exclusion caused by titles featuring girls, little women and young misses, featuring braids, socks and ribbons, featuring high school girls and good little girls.
from a handful of titles selected for someone who can no longer read
Examine a library – not a large one, but your small, personal library – and reassess every volume bearing in mind the memory of a person who’s never read them.
Consider which books your grandmother might have enjoyed, for example, which ones she might have included in a list of volumes that spoke to her life as a woman, or which ones might have made an impression on her or changed her, or might have bored her, and which books she might have even despised because they lacked a clear understanding of what was important, and which ones she might have enjoyed in secret and shared with no one. Which books she might have read, voraciously, and then reread. She, who did not read books but rather grocery lists, messages, letters that reached her decade after decade and which she answered, painstakingly, her handwriting tiny, drawn, almost childlike, the same handwriting she used to fill her third-grade notebooks.
from Mrs Dalloway
What we need, now, is: Mrs Dalloway in London, but as an immigrant; Mrs Dalloway as a middle-class or even working-class woman throwing a dinner party for several guests; Mrs Dalloway with children who will ruin the flowers she’s gone out to buy; Mrs Dalloway on her cell phone, ever so busy, with no notion that she could find the time to dwell on the past; Mrs Dalloway shopping online and not leaving her house to be confronted by the necessary chaos of the streets; Mrs Dalloway, who has no knowledge of war, not even second-hand, but only of everyday battles; Mrs Dalloway, a normal woman who doesn’t realize she’s a feminist, even though she is.
from world poetry
So many mistaken verses, in desperate need of an edit, because they were written in a single gender and dedicated to the other.
from a famous religious hymn
Listen and make a concerted effort to grasp the words and meanings of breathtaking interpretations by Pergolesi, for example, or Vivaldi, in an hymn as old as ‘Stabat Mater’ – whose title, translated literally, simply means ‘the Mother Stood’, and speaks of how Christ’s mother had suffered – and then consider what History might have looked like if women had spent less time crying over men.
Image © Sam Javanrouh