In general I don’t read a book twice. It doesn’t matter how great it was, how close I got to the characters, how much the experience gave me. The reason? There is simply too much good literature out there to dwell on what’s already been read. I am also too impatient. With a new book in hand I always find myself checking how many pages there are in total, then figure out by which page I will be halfway through and finally try to get through the whole blasted tome as quickly as possible so I can start on a new one. The ever-greater pile of unread books looks down on me guiltily, so there simply is no way I would have time nor the interest to re-read. Or so I thought.
There have always been a few exceptions. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited I never get tired of re-reading, and now finally I have once again taken on the mammoth task of re-reading Marcel Proust’s À La Recherche du Temps Perdu. I read it, or them I guess would be more accurate coming to this seven-volume monster of a piece, the first time around when I was 19. I had fallen in love with France and it’s 19th century art scene many years earlier, and a small, battered study edition of my mother’s of Combray I-II had always been staring at me in the upper library of where I grew up. I had always had a deep urge to read it, but had never dared. Then, when I was going to Paris for the first time, I read it in an afternoon a few weeks before in my small dorm room at the university where I happened to be studying at the time. Lying on my back, skipping lectures because I was so taken aback with this new world of storytelling, I bought all of the eight volumes in hardback next time I came back home. It was an expensive investment for a young student at the time, but I haven’t regretted it for a second. And now I’m at it again. I saw the volumes when I was at The Rectory where I grew up a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t resist bringing the first volume with me on the plane back to Amsterdam. And for someone who in general doesn’t read a book twice, it has been a peculiar experience.
Since it is almost a decade ago I read À la Recherche last, in a rather Proustesque way I find the different volumes having like small, mental connotations not dissimilar to how the material items does set the storyteller in the books off on his long, winding sentences and reflections. Like I remember reading Combray I-II, I clearly remember how I read volume two and three while in Paris for a few weeks at my first summer break from university. So isn’t it strange then, that the strongest experience I now have re-reading Proust is remembering the feelings I had about life, the world and about this new literary experience ten years ago? I certainly get a lot out of reading it again, and once again finding the fascinating details the author has left for us to reflect upon, but the strongest feeling is to be brought back to 2001 all over again. The feeling of being a young student with his whole life ahead of him.
So maybe this is my equivalent to Proust’s moment with the Madeleine cake and the linden tea? Re-reading opens up doors to new parts of ones mind, not just in the literature. For me it has been a rather odd realisation, but maybe that’s the greatness of literature? Not just that it helps us exercise our imagination and broaden our horizons, but that it also stays with us longer than we thought. Maybe more of the actual experience of reading stays with us than we think? Fascinating.