How is it that a story, or a poem for that matter, can be read with enjoyment, of one sort or another, time after time?
That it can be is shown by the fact that we have favourite stories and poems. It is apparent that we are not re-reading because we have forgotten them, rather the opposite in fact. We re-read in anticipation of what we have remembered.
This raises the question of why we should need to re-read, if we remember. One answer might be that it is because we remember imperfectly, but short poems, for example, may be remembered in their entirety, and yet still be re-read. Could it be that in re-reading, or indeed in recalling in part or in entirety pieces of writing that we have enjoyed, we experience some sort of renewal of the emotions that we experienced in previous readings, or recollections?
Of course, we cannot experience the same shock of the new, of the unexpected, when we re-read. We may experience a shock of recognition at something forgotten and re-discovered, but not the shock of discovery at something not seen before. Perhaps the feelings that we are renewing are not in fact to do with the discovery, or re-discovery, but with the experience of the juxtapositions created by the sequences of words.
Reading, and writing, is all about words. That is so obvious it seems foolish to point it out, but it is worth pausing to reflect upon. All we have is the words, when we are dealing with texts, poetic or prosaic. Individual words and groups of words resonate with us. They activate our emotions through their meanings and connotations, and through their sounds (their imagined sounds, if we are reading silently). Even the feel of words in our mouths as we speak them can excite our emotions (a friend of mine once dated an actress who liked to quote a line about saying the word ‘lingerie’. ‘Feel it in your mouth’ she’d tell him in a yankee drawl. I don’t know where it comes from, but I know it drove him crazy!).
These evocations, being sparked off, one after the other, are a major component of the experience of reading. We segue, leap, slide, are pushed and shoved, jostled and beguiled, across the interfaces between them in as many ways as can be imagined and articulated. It is to fire off these emotional synapses that we read, and re-read. The words, and strings of words, strike the sparks.
I have often been told by people that they can’t read a book twice. The implication of such a statement is that by knowing the outcome of a story, it has been used up. Much of what I have written about short stories is based on the belief that short stories are all about their endings, but that does not necessarily mean that they are about finding out what those endings are. It may be that they are about firing off that string of synapses along the way, until that final spark, which leaps the gap between the last two emotions, the most powerful of the juxtapositions in the story. If that is the case, then the enacting of what has been anticipated may be every bit as powerful as the enactment of what is unexpected. Let’s face it, the dentists drill is no less scary the second time around!
In his essay on Story, in the collection Of Other Worlds (Bles,1956), C.S.Lewis sums this up rather neatly, saying: ‘The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises, but for a certain surprisingness’. There’s a distinction here, elaborated upon within his essay, which is worth pausing to reflect upon. A surprise is an event, but surprisingness is a state, and it is perhaps in the comparison of states that the true pleasure of story is found.
There are implications for writers here, one of which is that it is not the creation of descriptions of or references to sequences of events that is our main function, but the creation of sequences of evoked responses in the reader. What our stories are about is, in fact, only the means to the end of what they will make the reader feel.