On Rereading

I have devoted my life to reading, and I spend a good portion of that life reading things I’ve already read. Not everyone understands this, and not everyone feels this impulse to begin again. The act of reading is inherently progressive: it tends forward, toward the future, letter after letter, word after word, sentence after sentence, page after page. Rereading is a doubling: every movement forward is also a repetition, an echoing, a recalling.

I wonder if there is no such thing as reading, if there is only rereading.

I’ve always been inclined to reread the books I love. This started in my youth with comics, I think. The thirty-day wait between issues of Avengers or Amazing Spider-Man was massive and torturous, and so to fill the void I would read through my burgeoning collection backwards, toward the bottom of the cardboard box that housed my secret treasures. Each rereading would imprint an issue’s story ever more firmly in my imagination and in my memory, forging a link between these mental activities that I rely on to this day. Every rereading stripped the story of some of its original magic and power. There were no more surprises, no more shocking cliff-hangers. I knew the heartbeat of every story I returned to. Synching my own readerly heartbeat to that of a familiar story seemed, in fact, to be the goal, and yet, despite the predictability of everything, rediscovering familiar patterns and rhythms was something that gave me great happiness. Great contentment. Great pleasure.

This past week I have been rereading Watchmen, the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I’m not sure how many times I’ve read this book — probably close to a dozen. In its rich detail and fine craftsmanship, it is a book that invites, even demands, repeated engagements.

I noticed something in this rereading that I had never noticed before. It is a detail that completely alters my understanding of the entire book, and I am staggered by the fact that I missed it. Interpretations of Watchmen pivot around the actions of Ozymandias, the self-appointed savior of the world who cuts through the Gordian knot of the Cold War and seems to bring about world peace, though only by deliberately killing millions. As news of his triumph cascades across television screens behind him, Ozymandias raises his arms, victorious. A painting of his hero, Alexander the Great, looms in the background. I think this painting is what stole my attention in readings past.

This time what I noticed is that Ozymandias’s upstretched arms, ringed by yellow light, create the illusion of the hands of a clock. Something surged through me when I read this possibility, an excitement different than the confusing thrill of a first reading, but connected to that first reading and to all the readings in between. The significance of my realization was that it allowed me to connect Ozymandias’s victory to the pervasive imagery of Doomsday Clocks in the novel. Reminders of the relentless, seemingly unalterable countdown to nuclear apocalypse are everywhere in the book, and Ozymandias’s masterstroke happens as midnight strikes. My latest reading suggests to me that at the moment of victory, there is an undeniable suggestion that Ozymandias’s actions have only pushed the clock back a few minutes. He hasn’t saved the world but rather delayed the inevitable. My previous readings now seem remarkably incomplete. Like the hands of a clock, I want to begin again. What else am I missing?

On the top of my pile now is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. My wife gave me a copy eight years ago on my birthday, and I think I’ve read it at least once a year since then. My son had just turned two when I first read the book. I remember my first reading of the harrowing odyssey of father and son through an apocalyptic wasteland as an overwhelming experience. The true horror of my first reading was anticipatory: I was a new father, and the book filled me with dread about the prospects for the future of the world and my child’s place within it.

My son is now ten, which means he is about the same age as the young boy in the novel. I think it will be impossible for me not to see my son on every page. The story is the same, but it changes with each telling.

In the novel, the father has a memory of standing in “the charred ruins of a library.” In his memory “He picked up one of the books and thumbed through the heavy bloated pages. He’d not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation.” This is a devastating moment of loss, and pain, and frustration. I think it might also be a manifesto for rereading. While there’s still time.

I have a vision — a grey, cloudy one, but there it is — of reading The Road as an old man, with the full knowledge of a son who is a man himself. In some vague way, strangely, wonderfully, even as I read it now I wonder what will strike me in this reading yet to come.

And I know with great certainty — this vision is sharper — that my son will read this book one day too. I see myself giving him my copy, which will be the book itself, and it will also be a map, and a compass, and a diary, and a time machine, and the transcript of an unfinished conversation, a maze of annotations and underlinings in faded pencil and every shade of pen.

And he will open it up and reread it again for the very first time.

First page of The Road

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