In Defense of Rereading

I recently came across an article where several notable writers revisited their earlier works, rereading them and remarking on their current feelings about these long-ago expressions of their selves. Philip Roth, for instance, checked in on Alexander Portnoy and Portnoy’s Complaint. Marilynne Robinson talked about the writing process for Housekeeping, and Junot Diaz writes about his frustration while working on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

I loved reading these authors’ reactions to their own work. Hearing what George Saunders had to say about CivilWarLand in Bad Decline was the most interesting to me, though. He was the most critical of his earlier work, the most uncomfortable with it. He also talked about the memories it jostled out of him, taking him back to where he was when writing the book, the actual physical places he was when he wrote and edited the stories.

In closing, he said this:

It was interesting to come back to something I’d made and find how much it had changed. Though we think we are making permanent monuments against which our egos can rest, we’re actually making something more akin to a fog cloud. We come back to what we’ve made and find out it’s been changing all along. We’ve changed, the artistic context around the story has changed, the world has changed. And this is kind of wonderful and useful. It made me remember that the real value of the artistic act is not product but process.

I loved that sentiment, for what it represented about the feelings all of us (writers, artists, creators) have when we look back on something we made long ago. Who among us hasn’t stumbled upon an old notebook, opened it to a poem we wrote in high school (it’s always a poem), and thought, “WHO WROTE THAT? It cannot be me.” Of course, to compare our high school poetry to George Saunders’s excellent short story collection is a little harsh, but you get my meaning.

But his statement also struck me as an apt description of how I feel about rereading books, particularly books I connected deeply with long, long ago.

Rereading, if not exactly a controversial topic, is at least one that some book-lovers have strong opinions on. I know fellow readers who think it’s crazy to reread books — I mean, it’s such a big world, there are so many books out there, and more coming into being every day, and our time is so limited… I get that, I do. Trust me, I often think that the thing I fear most about getting old and dying is not the pain and decay — it’s that I will not have had the chance to read all the books I want to. (Seriously, these are the things that trouble me. That and running out of red wine at an inopportune time.)

But, just as strident in the other camp are the rereaders, and I am proud to plant my proverbial flag there.

Because we are different people from one minute to the next, day to day, year to year. We change. The world changes. And given that we change, how we feel about certain books changes. And what we get out of those books changes. And I love seeing the different things I get out of certain books over time.

That’s why to me, it doesn’t even feel like rereading, really. I often feel I’m approaching a book anew.

For instance, a few years ago I reread Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn. This is a book I’d read only once before, about two decades earlier in high school. In fact, I still have that original copy. I remembered loving it, its weirdness, the alternate reality Dunn created that felt so different, but also felt so normal. It did not let me down upon rereading it. In fact, as I’ve often found, my appreciation for it deepened, and I felt that at their heart, the Binewskis were a family (of freaks, yes) not all that different from my own, or yours, or your neighbor’s.

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It doesn’t always go as planned, though. When I reread Life of Pi (no, I haven’t seen the movie), I did not have that same magical feeling as the first time I read it. Maybe this is because of the nature of the book’s ending, so I knew what was coming. Or maybe it was just that I changed and something in me didn’t feel the same this go ’round. I adored and even wept over that book the first time. This time, eh. Rereading can be weird like that.

I’ve come to ask myself while reading a (truly) new book, “Would I reread this?” That’s usually a great indicator of how I really feel about a book. I’m careful in my reading selections, and it’s rare that I out-and-out hate something. I like lots of things. But I find I only want to reread certain books now and then.

Some, like Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! have been a part of my life for decades. I think I’ve reread that one twice now, and I know I’m not done with it yet. Faulkner, in particular, is an author you can keep going back to and getting new things from his works every time. I feel the same way about The Sound and the Fury, naturally. (Now, THAT book, you simply MUST reread if you ever really want to get a handle on it. I think I’ve reread it three times and I feel like I’m getting there. Maybe.)

A more recent addition to the “will keep rereading forever” club for me is Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. I first read it last year and could not put it down. I immediately reread it. We’re talking: finish the book, turn the last page, then flip back to the first page and start over. The nuances of that book, the way she gets at longing and nostalgia — LIFE! — astound me. It’s so beautiful. I love cranky old Olive, too. She’s a handful. (And, yes, I did see the recent HBO mini-series: two thumbs up from me, although even though I love Bill Murray, I’m not sure he was exactly right in that role.)

Now, maybe I hadn’t changed that much in between my first and second readings of Olive Kitteridge, but I still loved it even more fiercely the second time through. I’m waiting awhile before I go for it again.

Rereading, for me, is like sitting down with an old friend, one I’ve known for years but haven’t kept up with. I like to see how I’ve changed and grown, and how I haven’t. I like to notice the things that stand out to me that didn’t before, which things speak to me that were previously silent.

It’s amazing to see yourself in books, and to see your growth as a person and your life experiences reflected there. And I do, each and every time I reread something.

All you anti-rereaders out there should try it sometime.

Books: On The Last Days of California

It’s no secret that Mississippi has produced a number of literary luminaries, whether we’re talking about William Faulkner or Eudora Welty or Larry Brown. Our rich literary history isn’t just history, though — new voices abound, which is both encouraging and exciting. For avid readers, discovering these new writers and being able to follow their careers is such a gift.

Mary Miller is one shining example of these new voices. She’s a Jackson, Mississippi native, and is currently the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss, following her time as a Michener Fellow in fiction at the University of Texas.

In 2009, Miller published a collection of short stories called Big World, which I read and loved. I found her writing dark, funny, and insightful. So, it was with great anticipation that I awaited the publication of her debut novel this past year. Luckily for readers everywhere, she didn’t disappoint.

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Narrated by a 15-year-old girl named Jess, The Last Days of California is about a family vacation, a road trip across the country from Montgomery, Alabama, to California. In many ways, it’s exactly like the vacations many of us have taken in our lives, complete with the annoyances and frustrations most families feel when in the car together for days. The key difference, though, is that Jess’s evangelical father believes that the rapture is imminent, and so is taking his family to the West Coast to both witness it and to proselytize to people along the way. Jess’s big sister Elise, a couple of years older, looms large as everything Jess feels she’ll never be: beautiful, self-assured, outspoken, and rebellious. Jess’s mother is also along for the ride, quietly skeptical and a bit removed, but supportive of her husband nonetheless.

Miller’s writing here is incredibly detailed, capturing perfectly the landscape of the South as seen during a road trip, from the changing landscape as they move across Texas to the various snack foods Jess and her sister buy at each stop along the way. In Jess’s voice, Miller has created a character any of us could relate to, no matter how far removed from our teenage selves we are. She’s searching for answers, both big and small. She bounces easily from concerns about her religion and what she really believes to worries about her family’s stability to more usual 15-year-old thoughts about her weight and whether a boy will ever like her.

Poignant, relatable, and often funny, The Last Days of California is a standout book that I enjoyed reading. I’m already looking forward to what Miller does next.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/11/13/book-biz-last-days-california-compelling-debut-novel-mississippi-native/)

How reading literature boosts empathy and emotional intelligence

Would you believe that reading can actually make you better at perceiving the emotional states of those around you? A study out of the New School for Social Research in New York City last year supports this notion, but interestingly, it’s not just reading any old thing that brings about these results. Specifically, those who read “literary fiction” versus popular fiction or serious nonfiction scored much better on tests designed to measure their ability to pick up on subtle emotional cues.

What do you get from Huck Finn that you just don’t get from Harry Potter? The two researchers who conducted the study believe that the nature of literary fiction causes the reader to have to draw conclusions and make connections that aren’t obvious. There are more things left unsaid. Simply put, literary fiction makes you work — sometimes a lot. While that undoubtedly slows down your reading (no speed reading of the classics as if they were beach books), it’s also building your ability to empathize with those around you. What better argument for diving into the great literary classics of our time?

As Mississippians (note: this originally was published in the Mississippi Business Journal), we’re lucky to call many authors of those great classics our own. So if you’re looking for a reason to read or reread literary giants from the Magnolia State like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Tennessee Williams, Barry Hannah, or Larry Brown (just to name a few of my favorites), now’s the time.

Faulkner, in particular, makes you work hard for it, but the insights he provides into the human condition make every instance of furrowed brow worth it. I’m sure many of us have read As I Lay Dying and struggled through The Sound and the Fury, both exceptional. (My favorite remains Absalom, Absalom!, though.) By reading and rereading his work, we’re expanding our capacity for empathizing with our fellow man, a thought I think would delight Faulkner.

After all, in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2013/10/25/lofton-reading-literature-boosts-empathy-emotional-intelligence/)

“Americanah’s” Exploration of Race and Immigration Astounds

In a world filled with constant distractions, with beeping and buzzing gadgets begging us for attention at every turn, and webpages upon webpages rife with content and opinions, why would anyone bother to read contemporary fiction? The answer, at least for me, is that well-written fiction can both entertain and educate. It can teach me something about the world around me, about the experiences of others, and most importantly, that despite our differences, we’re actually not all in this alone.

A recent study showed that reading literature (versus popular fiction) can strengthen your ability to empathize with your fellow human beings, and it’s important to realize that “literature” doesn’t just mean something published years and years ago. A book like Americanah, which was published last year and subsequently named to multiple “best of” lists by publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post absolutely qualifies.

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Written by celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young Nigerians struggling to escape their country for the greater opportunities available in America. We learn what it’s like to grow up poor in Nigeria, under military rule, and the various ways people there deal with this tough situation. Some seek solace in a bottle, for instance, while others believe salvation lies with the church (usually led by a preacher who curiously is much wealthier than his parishioners). For the youth, Nigeria’s limited opportunities means many of them have to look elsewhere if they hope to have a career at all.

The book is about so much more than the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, however. It’s also a classic immigrants’ tale, of the difficulty in adapting to life in a new and strange country.

Specifically, too, the book explores the complicated feelings of Africans who choose to come to America, where they must face a complex racial landscape very different than that in their home countries. One of the themes throughout the book is that for many of them, it’s when they reach America that they “feel black” for the first time in their lives, because back home, nearly everyone was. It was a new perspective I appreciated reading about.

The characters of Ifemelu and Obinze are so lifelike and so compelling that I was sad to leave them at the book’s end. I learned so much from them, and I rooted for them. And, as great fiction should do, the book left me feeling both challenged and enlightened. For that, I am grateful.