The Benefits of A Second Read

Some books, you love from the very start. You have a seat, open the cover, turn the page and you’re hooked from the first word. The work consumes you, body and soul. When you finish, you feel as though you’re missing a limb. You’re missing something vital – those characters, those places! They’ve grown to be part of your very being and you’re left feeling bereft.

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was like that for me. I started reading a bit nervously, because I’d read so many reviews of the book and had heard so   many people rail on about it, saying that it was overlong, overstuffed, overdone and overrated. I’d seen so many people express their wonder at it being a best seller and wonder “Why the heck did that thing win a Pulitzer?”.

Once I’d made it home from the library with my prize, I sat it on my nightstand and it sat for a few days, gently mocking me just a little.

I finally picked it up and…I was completely and utterly hooked from the word “Go”. I met Theo and his mother and I was amazingly drawn into that sprawling and somehow-at-the-same-time claustrophobic world and I didn’t want to leave. I couldn’t leave. I just had this hunger to know more.

I was over the moon and enamored with the book. When I didn’t like Theo or any other character (and that was pretty frequently), there was this pressing need to go on; to know more. I had to know what was happening. Some people find Tartt wordy – I like how incredibly verbose she is. Tartt and her writing enraptured and thrilled me.

The Goldfinch had me head over heels at that first reading. I ended up finishing that 700 page behemoth in a little under three days. It was nearly impossible for me to sat it down. I read while eating and tried to figure out a way I could read while showering (sadly, I couldn’t).

Tartt’s novel is, for me, an example of a book I connected with from the first moment. But I find myself more frequently finishing a book and going “eh, okay.”

With these books, I’m not in love. I’m not feeling hatred either, but I’m not thrilled, I’m not enraptured. I finish the book and put it aside and it doesn’t stick. I often wonder if perhaps, my feelings towards those books would improve upon a second read.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a book I think I’ll need to revisit. The start of the book was a true slog for me – as in it took me around a week and a half to get to page 200.

For some reason, at the time, I simply found the novel boring. Meticulously crafted, of course, but boring all time same. I wasn’t enjoying the reading. Clarke had created this intricate world and it was plain as day that the woman knew how to spin a tale. I just found it tedious.

Somewhere along page 500 or so, I started to really get into Jonathan Strange. I began to actually actively enjoy it. There was something about the book at time time – something about Arabella and Stephen and Jonathan’s descent that just captured my attention and made me yearn to know more about everything going on. I’m not sure if it was that I was getting accustomed to Clarke’s style or if it was just a natural progression and I simply cared more about the characters and their situations, but I became invested and burned through the remainder of the book pretty quickly.

Since finishing Jonathan Strange, I’ve come to feel that I’d probably like the book much, much more on a second read. Obviously, something clicked for me during the second half of the book and I think it’s worth exploring the possibility that “something” will click for me earlier if I take another look.

A second read made Jane Austen’s Persuasion far more palatable for me.

I first read Persuasion as an undergrad. I remember wandering in the NYU library, searching for some book to help with the writing of a paper. I’d stumbled upon a copy of Persuasion and since I loved Austen, I couldn’t help but check it out.

While I loved Emma and Pride and Prejudice, the moment I cracked them open, I just did not like Persuasion at all. I wasn’t entirely sure why, either. Persuasion is no more or less myopic than Austen’s other novels, but, with the exception of Mansfield Park, I experienced far more enjoyment reading the others.

Persuasion doesn’t have the humor of Emma. And Anne Elliot isn’t nearly as dynamic a lead as Elizabeth Bennett. Perhaps it was that the novel’s list of secondary characters wasn’t as interesting or devious as Willoughby, Fanny Dashwood or Caroline Bingley. I also didn’t care for Captain Wentworth as I did Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley.

I found it difficult to warm to Anne and Captain Wentworth and I suppose, without being able to invest in the secondary characters, I couldn’t engage with the novel at all. After finishing, I put it aside and didn’t think about it much, just enough to consider it my least favorite of Austen’s novels.

In December of last year, in a fit of boredom, I decided to re-read Persuasion. This time, I enjoyed it. It still isn’t my favorite of Austen’s works, but I found that I appreciate it more than I did. I am not sure if it’s the gift of age, but now, eight years removed from the first read, I find myself having enjoyed Austen’s subtlety and nuance more.

While I still prefer Lizzy Bennett’s headstrong ways – and wager that I always will – I understand Anne’s sedate resignation more. Anne is a woman older than Lizzy and with that age came life experience. Anne doesn’t have the gift of youth to benefit righteous conviction as Elizabeth both. While she does feel that she was right in listening to Lady Russell regarding Captain Wentworth, she also does have significant regret in refusing his proposal.

Anne loved Wentworth deeply, but bent to societal expectations of her at the time. She understood that she – a gentleman’s daughter – marrying a penniless sailor didn’t match the expectations of her. I still admire Elizabeth Bennett’s somewhat brash refusal to bend to society’s will by marrying solely for money – she refused an advantageous twice! – but now I can sympathize with Anne’s actions more than I could when I was younger.

In some respect, there is a quietness in Persuasion that isn’t in Pride and Prejudice  and Emma. Those two books are a bit louder, more dynamic than Austen’s final work, just as their heroines are more dynamic. The relationships between the heroines and their love interests are broader as well. Anne and Wentworth barely speak or spend time together until the end of the novel. Their closets interactions are ones we do not see, ones that faded with the years that grew between them. Lizzy and Mr. Darcy meet at the start of their novel and are in what feels to be constant (if not willing) contact. Emma and Knightley have known each other for years, have a long history as friends (and family, as Emma’s sister married Mr. Knightley’s brother) and talk freely with one another. While their interactions are always respectful, they aren’t timid with one another. Their relationship feels easier for the reader. It’s given to us softly until the end, but we never hesitate to believe that’s it’s there. We constantly see and hear of Emma’s affection for Knightley – she considers him just what a man should be – and he does not hesitate to show his affection for her, as well as rebuke her when needed. In fact, when he chastises her, it’s because Knightley knows that Emma is capable of being more.

Looking back, it’s easy for me to understand why I didn’t care for Persuasion when I first read it. It’s a bit quieter than I like my Austen and more subtle than I was used to with Jane. I was expecting her sharp humor and dialogue (you cannot tell me that Lizzy’s refusal of Darcy’s proposal isn’t one of the most amazing things ever), but that wasn’t what Persuasion was about and I was blind to that. Since I was blind, I missed what was beautiful about the novel. There is this quiet flush; this slow lurch that is delicious.

I think I’ve come to an age where it’s easier to understand Persuasion and Anne Elliot in particular. I’m at a place where I’m re-thinking my own decisions and wondering how I’ve gotten to where I am.

I now totally get why Emma and Elizabeth were protagonists I could really sink my teeth into. They were both young women and – particularly Elizabeth – trying to find live their lives by their own rules within the tight confines of greater world they live in. Lizzy was determined to marry for love (if all) and Emma turned to matchmaking out of an affection for those in her circle, her arrogance and in an attempt to engage a mind rendered idle by her class and status. During my youth, I’m not sure if I understood enough to understand Anne. I didn’t like how Anne gave up on her love with apparent ease to what society demanded of her. I didn’t like what I saw as her weakness. I didn’t like like what I saw as her timidity. I didn’t like that she and Wentworth barely spoke to one another – I took this as cowardice. I don’t any longer. I can’t. Now I see Anne as the majority of people  – those who mortgage what could be an amazing experience/life or what could be the best part of themselves. I can’t hate Anne for that. Not when so many of us are those people. I am one of those people.

Given how much I enjoyed Persuasion on the second read, I’m trying to think of other works I might enjoy after taking a look at them with fresh eyes. My experience with the novel has shown me that re-reads of works that you didn’t jive with can be important and have a real purpose. Maybe time is needed to connect to the novel; maybe experience that’s important.

I’ve got a long list of novels to re-discover. Let’s just hope they’re worth it.