The Book is Not the Book

Since at least my A-Levels, I’ve believed each book is a product of the text and the reader rather than having a single objective meaning. I realised yesterday that the greatest evidence of this lies not in complex literary theory, but rather in re-reading.

When I first moved out of my mother’s house, I—as many young people do—lived in a small rented flat. Therefore, I had neither the space to take all my possessions nor the desire to make the already anticipated move from that property to another more arduous. One of the things that remained in my childhood room as a chunk of my book collection. During the years of moving from rented property to rented property, ever with already enough books to fill the available shelves, that chunk remained at my mother’s house. However, when my wife and I bought our current house, we gained both more space and likely permanence. Thus, a chunk of the chunk moved in with me again. And in between reading new books, I’ve been sifting through the old to determine which books to keep and which to donate.

A model of a man pulling a trolley placed on top of an open book
©JD HancockCC BY 2.0

Last Friday, I finished a book I intended to write a detailed review of but didn’t have time to write the review itself, so thought rereading something from the to-be-sorted collection would avoid the trauma of not having a book to read but also avoid polluting my recall with an entirely new story. Which was how I came to read Anne Rice’s The Mummy again over the weekend. As with everyone involved in the Goth scene (or perhaps everyone, full stop) back then, I loved Interview with the Vampire and the sequels, so I grabbed The Mummy as soon as I’d finished all the (then available) Vampire Chronicles; and remember feeling slightly disappointed when I read it. Therefore, it was one of the books that didn’t make the move with me even though all my other Rice did.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, at how I felt drawn to spend time reading it in preference to other hobbies I usually partook of even under lock down, at how it now seemed on a par with Rice’s vampire novels rather than a deviation. And then I realised it was the opposite of those books I remembered as enjoyable from when I was younger but had now set aside for donation due to lack of joy in rereading them. The texts were of the same technical quality (to the extent that is a measurable thing), but me that read them now was not the me that read them then. Each of those books was a fusion of the text, my frames of reference at the time, and my state of mind. I still love vampire tales above many other genres, but my experiences of romance, power, and society have changed since I was a young student.

This thought has, with hindsight, been lurking in my head for quite some time: I realised years ago that I (and others) read and reread Lovecraft without developing his attitudes to race because I simply didn’t realise his monsters and degenerate foreigners might be seen as portrayals of real non-WASPs until well after I was aware that race doesn’t equate to moral value. But, this was the first time I recall seeing the effect of rereading as demonstration that each book exists as gestalt of text and reader.

There are, of course, exceptions: it is vastly unlikely there will ever be a me so different from now that I rave about The Mediocre Gatsby.

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