There are moments when quite separate fragments of information or opinion come together and something hitherto only vaguely intuited becomes clear. Opening a new book called Forgetting by the Dutch writer Douwe Draaisma, I am told almost at once that our immediate visual memories “can hold on to stimuli for no more than a fraction of a second.” This fact—our inevitable forgetting, or simply barely registering most of the visual input we receive—is acknowledged with some regret since we are generally encouraged, Draaisma reflects, “to imagine memory as the ability to preserve something, preferably everything, wholly intact.”
The same day, I ran across a quotation from Vladimir Nabokov on the Internet: “Curiously enough,” the author of Lolita tells us, “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” Intrigued by this paradox, I checked out the essay it came from. “When we read a book for the first time,” Nabokov complains, “the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation.” Only on a third or fourth reading, he claims, do we start behaving toward a book as we would toward a painting, holding it all in the mind at once.
Nabokov does not mention forgetting, but it’s clear that this is what he is largely talking about. The physical effort of moving the eyes back and forth remains exactly the same on every reading of a book, nor have I ever found it particularly laborious. What is different on a second and subsequent readings is our growing capacity for retention, for putting things in relation to one another. We know the end of the story now and can see how it is foreshadowed at the beginning, how the strands are spun and gathered together. Rereading Mrs. Dalloway, for example, we are struck on the first page to find the comment “What a lark, what a plunge,” of Clarissa’s sallying forth from her house into the street, aware as we now are that later in the book one of the characters will plunge to his death from an upper window. At once we feel we know the novel better, or at least are more aware of its careful construction. It is gratifying.
Nabokov continues his essay, quoting Flaubert: Comme l’on serait savant si l’on connaissait bien seulement cinq ou sìx livres. (“What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half a dozen books.”) The ideal here, it seems, is total knowledge of the book, total and simultaneous awareness of all its contents, total recall. Knowledge, wisdom even, lies in depth, not extension. The book, at once complex and endlessly available for revisits, allows the mind to achieve an act of prodigious control. Rather than submitting ourselves to a stream of information, in thrall to each precarious moment of a single reading, we can gradually come to possess, indeed to memorize, the work outside time.
Since a reader could only achieve such mastery with an extremely limited number of books, it will be essential to establish that very few works are worth this kind of attention. We are pushed, that is, toward an elitist vision of literature in which aesthetic appreciation requires exhaustive knowledge only of the best. It is the view of writing and reading that was taught in English departments forty years ago: the dominance of the canon, the assumption of endless nuance and ambiguity, the need for close textual analysis.
Needless to say it’s also an approach that consoles professors for having to reread the same texts year in year out. (Indeed, if I frequently quote from Lawrence and Joyce and Beckett and Woolf in this space, it is because these are authors whose works I regularly teach and have reread more times than I care to think.) And of course it is precisely the kind of text that is wilfully complex and difficult—Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, The Magic Mountain, Gadda’s That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!—that allows the professor, who has read it ten times, to stay safely ahead of his bewildered students.
Meanwhile, our reactions to a book on first reading are irrelevant, except in so far as they do or don’t encourage us to go back to the beginning and start again. But since this whole approach assumes that no book worth its salt will yield its best first time around and that we can’t know what might come up on further readings—an idea that is easy to sell to a young and inexperienced reader approaching Musil or Svevo or Kafka—the decision to reread is more or less taken for us by our teachers, or by critics. In short, our betters will tell us from their experience which books we should be reading—rereading, that is—since our first reading is hardly reading at all. Once the canon is established, then, it is unlikely to change, since who has time to check out the stuff that didn’t make it? If, that is, on Flaubert’s recommendation, my half dozen books are still yielding new depths, why should I look elsewhere?
So, is this an ideal attitude to literature? Is Nabokov right that there is only rereading? Does the whole posture, both Nabokov’s and that of critical orthodoxy, bear any relation to the reality of our reading habits, particularly in a contemporary environment that offers us more and more books and less and less time to read them?
Let’s go back to Douwe Draaisma. Why does he describe our inability to recall the sense impressions of a few seconds before as “forgetting”? That would imply that I had “possessed” those impressions or wanted to possess them. The underlying implication is that life has less worth, less dignity, if it just, as it were, slips by. Yet even as I write now I am aware of scores of sense impressions. The position of papers, teacups, pens, phone, and books on the glass surface of my living-room table, which is also reflecting the opposite wall with its shelves and bric-a-brac and, as it happens, fresh white paint; the hum of the fridge and a distant siren, a dog barking and the sunlight bouncing off the façade across the street yellowing the cream color of my curtains. I will never be able to recall a fraction of all this tomorrow, or a year hence. Yet such perceptions are very much part of the pleasure of being here in the present as I write and without them life would be poor indeed.
Of course one reason I won’t be able to recall all my impressions is that they will have been substituted by others, equally rich, plus the fact that having written down a few elements of the here and now, any memory of it I might have mustered will be colored if not hijacked by that account. In dismissing the myth of total recall, Draaisma reminds us that the memories we do retain are largely fabrications, re-workings, shifting narratives, simplifications, distortions, photos replacing faces, and so on; what’s more, that there is no reason to suppose that the original impression is intact somewhere in our heads. We do not possess the past, even that of a few moments ago, and this is hardly a cause for regret, since to do so would severely obstruct our experience of the present.
Does this throw any light on the business of reading? Well, one has to wonder about Nabokov’s enthusiasm for rereading. Is it really a gradual and always positive accumulation of greater and greater control and retention, or is it rather a precarious process in which each new engagement with the text cancels and alters earlier ones? I will never recover my first excitement on reading, say, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or Browning’s Men and Women, or Beckett’s Molloy. Often, I have a sense of disappointment when I reread: Graham Greene, E. M. Forster, Calvino, Antonio Tabucchi, do not seem as exhilarating now as when I first tackled them. But why should that diminish the pleasure I once experienced? Why should I not rejoice that I am enjoying a new book today, rather than worry what the verdict of some future rereading might be? The purpose of reading is not to pass some final judgement on the text, but to engage with what it has to offer to me now.
Nabokov of course was an obsessive collector of butterflies; the most elusive of creatures were to be pinned down. Many of his characters exhibit the qualities, perversions, and insecurities of the collector. Humbert Humbert opens his story with an attempt to possess Lolita through the pronunciation of her name, “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.” Words in general have a vocation for rearranging and fixing experience in a way that can be communicated across space and time. Yet often it seems that our experience of the words once written down is as volatile and precarious as our other sense impressions. No reader ever really takes complete control of a book—it’s an illusion—and perhaps to expend vast quantities of energy seeking to do so is a form of impoverishment. Couldn’t there be a hint of irony in Flaubert’s Comme l’on serait savant… (“What a scholar one might be…”)? Is it really wise to renounce all the impressions that a thousand books could bring, all that living, for the wisdom of five or six?