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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray


All reading is re-reading, according to some very savvy folks. This sounds like a paradox, my friends, after all, reading is different from re-reading. How could they be the same?

Today, as promised, something a little different. Instead of discussing a particular book or story, I want to present some more general ideas about reading, specifically, re-reading.

In this blog, I have taken the course of only writing about stories I have read before, in short, stories I am re-reading. My reason for this is that, while I find the first reading of a book as enjoyable as the next human does, I don’t think the perspective it provides is deep enough to generate much analysis. Maybe, if you are asked to describe the plot, who the characters are, the verb tense and person used, you could but isn’t it true that to do this one would have to go back in the book or at least think back?

It is true, boss.

‘Kay. What is reading?

“Reading is making meaning from print. It requires that we: Identify the words in print – a process called word recognition. Construct an understanding from them – a process called comprehension. Coordinate identifying words and making meaning so that reading is automatic and accurate – an achievement called fluency.”

This is a fine definition. However, it ignores the distinction that can be made between a first time reading of a text vs, a re-reading. In either process, we do what the above definition describes: We recognize words, we comprehend them, and we (hopefully) demonstrate our fluency through accuracy. However, it is within re-reading that we make deeper meanings.

Perhaps a first read is a somewhat linear event in that one reads from start to finish, one page at a time—unless you skip ahead! (or back, which proves the point). A lot of the pleasure of reading occurs on the first read when one can get lost in a different, fictional world.

One of the things I enjoy doing when I read a book is to determine how many pages it comprises, to provide myself with a sense of how long I might be occupied in reading it. Of course, this introduces the element of time in reading—we’ll cover it later, I promise. I don’t necessarily feel dismayed when I discover a book is, say, five hundred pages or feel disappointed when a book is only two hundred thirty-nine, it really depends on my enjoyment of the first few pages and my overall sense of the book, i.e., what I’ve learned about it pre-reading. I’ve alluded to this before, this process of getting information about books from reviews, from the covers, from our knowledge of authors’ previous work and their lives.

But what happens when we read? If we are concentrating well, and if the text is fairly simple, a first reading may be sufficient. Let’s turn to that perennial favorite, the Dick and Jane stories: “Oh, see. Oh, see Jane. Funny, funny Jane.” (sorry Jane)

This passage doesn’t require re-reading, I think. An entity, a narrator, is exhorting the reader to “see,” to look at Jane, whom we could easily assume is a female person. And then the narrator offers a further clarification, that Jane is amusing. We read this, and if we are fluent in English, we can visualize a little girl who does funny things. Perhaps we can even visualize a narrator directing our attention.

Easy-peasy, right? (spell check that, please).

In contrast, here’s a passage from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Volume II: “And so there are very few who can regard as natural the enormous proportions that a person comes to assume in our eyes who is not the same as the person they see.”

This passage requires re-reading to get the meaning. (unless you’re smarter than me). Another narrator entity is telling us something, and it relates to the previous sentence and paragraph. It is, in fact, a comment on what has come before, and so, we may immediately need to go back to re-read what is being commented on in order to understand the comment. The narrator wants us to understand a distinction being made between two types of people, one, those who are the same (or seem to be) as the people we experience, and those who are not the same. And then, that a person from that latter group may assume considerable importance. And that this assumption is rarely regarded as natural by those people who experience the person as someone different. This presents an important idea that runs throughout Proust’s work, that the same person may be experienced very differently by different people. Humans do not present a uniform personality or even appearance to others. When we make meaning of others, it is an individual process informed by who we are just as much as who the other person is.

Pretty complex, eh?

What would Proust say about Jane—would he think she’s funny? Would he have to re-read the passage in disbelief?

‘Kay. The point, as Walter states, is that comprehension of the passage from Proust requires re-reading—requires it the first time through. It requires re-reading, and it requires reflection.

Going back to the original definition of reading, if we are fluent in English, it’s easy to comprehend the words, but to comprehend the sentence it’s harder because there are several referents that have to be understood, i.e., those who are like the person one experiences and those who are not. And a narrator.

So, yes, I am aligning myself with the savvy ones I alluded to at the beginning of the post. (Do you need to re-read?) Except for the simplest of messages and texts, re-reading is necessary, even on the first try.

A primary, linear reading (first-time) of a text is perhaps an ideal, something not to be found in everyday activity. We could say that reading is more a process of going back and forth. Two steps forward, one back, as it were. We read a new passage, and then must go back to make any meaning of it beyond the most basic of comprehending the words.

Reflection. Re-reading, best B.

Do you have to re-read this blog?

I do.

Till next time.


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