Wednesday, 7 May 2008

On re-reading

I maybe shouldn’t admit to this but I will anyway.

The other day, I was doing some reading for my course, a chapter from a book. As I read, it seemed familiar — no, not quite familiar, more like somewhere between the understood and the known. Now and again, I’d find myself thinking: I’ve read this before. And I’d think of climbing off the sofa where I was reading and walking up the stairs to my office to check on my reading log*. Then the next sentence would seem novel and fresh and I couldn’t be bothered to make the journey.

I must have been three-quarters the way through it — and this wasn’t a short, easily read chapter — when I eventually realised that I had read it before. I wish I could tell you exactly what made me realise it but I was so embarrassed at myself that I went into a state of what I can now think of as psychic blushing.

Maybe it wasn’t a sudden realisation, maybe it was a gradual evolution. But, whichever it was, there was a state change. One moment I was a person doing something for the first time. The next I was a person doing something they’d already done before. Or rather, one moment I was a person doing something they’d already done before and the next I was a person knowing they’d done something before. It wasn’t comfortable.

I decided: incipient Alzheimer’s. Of course. I thought: you stupid fool, you are too old to go back to university.

I went to my office and checked. Yes, I had read it before, about six months ago. There it was in the file, highlighted and annotated. I noticed one little thing — though I didn’t grasp its significance till later. I’d marked quite different things first time round.

Some time later, when I’d stopped blushing and trying to hide from myself, I thought again about my forgetting. I found myself thinking about those different marks. Had I really understood it that badly on first reading? I went back, looked again at those marks and highlightings. I realised that they were different for a reason. I’d read it for a different unit on the course so I was reading it through a different pair of — metaphorical — glasses.

More than that, I was a different person. The I that had read it first time was not the I who had read it the other day. Things had changed. I’d read more. I’d learned more. I grasped more, more quickly — on this subject at least.

I thought of two Frenchmen. Rimbaud: j’est un autre (I is another). And Pierre Bayard, psychoanalyst and author of How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (see Further contributions to an understanding of On reading and not reading, February 29, 2008). Here, I decided, was a fine example of what Bayard suggests is the utility of not-reading. Or rather, regressing to a state of having-not-read. By forgetting, I had made it possible for me to slip the conceptual bonds of my previous understanding of the text. My suppression of my original reading had facilitated the creation of a new text. I was now not just its reader but its writer, too.

I had freed myself from myself to be myself: the core conceptual aim of psychoanalysis some would say.

So maybe I wasn’t so senile after all. Or maybe wishful thinking is an early indicator of senility.

* Actually, all my reading is logged on a custom database I built — which is why I know exactly how many papers etc I’ve read and how many I’ve finished (see Studying by numbers, April 29, 2008). But I’m much too embarrassed about that to tell you. I am proud, though, of its colour scheme.

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