Re-Reading — a Whole Different Process

I’m about to re-read my favorite new book of the year, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. Our book club discusses it one week from today, and a couple months have passed since I first made the acquaintance of Balram Halwai, entrepreneur. What a guy. I’m looking forward to having him try to hustle me again.

White Tiger  Today I’ll dive in, and I’m eager for the pleasures that lie ahead, but the experience won’t be quite the same. Reading and re-reading look similar, they’re achieved by the same process, your body is in the same position, the pages turn the same, but what happens is something else.

I re-read a book in the hope of recapturing some of the pleasures of my first experience. Sometimes, with the best literature, you discover new depths and levels. Re-reading Proust was a humbling experience, to see just how much my thick head had failed to perceive. Re-reading Joseph Conrad or Iris Murdoch provides that same sense of “how much I missed the first time.”

First-time reading provides a one-time-only addictive thrill that re-reading can never hope to equal, but that first reading doesn’t reveal the mechanics and geometry of the book, which only become apparent looking back from the other side of the book’s ending. If the set-ups were successful, they were invisible the first time – the second time they glow like fluorescent flags.

I remember how Balram tells me at the end of the first chapter that he will cut his master’s throat. I was tempted to put the book down – I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend a whole book in the company of a murderer – but it was too late. I liked Balram. I had to know what would bring him to do that. What would make a character I liked do something so dreadful – and do it to the only other likeable character, the only one to treat Balram kindly? Disturbingly enough, in reading The White Tiger, you learn just exactly that.

Re-reading has its limitations. It doesn’t work as well in buses, for instance. It isn’t as effective during the little breaks of the day. That’s when I need the “And then, and then” lure of new narrative. Bus rides and coffee breaks aren’t for thoughtful re-evaluation of technique. They’re for inducing reading hypnosis. They’re for escape from the present. The unknown works best.

The emotions in re-reading will be different than the first time. They will probably occur in new places. There will be an additional depth that wasn’t there before, the pre-knowledge of events, my emotional footprints from the first reading.

A thin layer of memory from now on will always be part of The White Tiger. I’ve recorded my personal set of emotional responses into the narrative. I won’t be caught by surprise. I know in advance what happens to Balram and his boss. But where the element of surprise is lost, the elements of form and pattern and technique will become a new part of my reading pleasure. I’m about to see how it all the parts of the novel fit together.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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