Monday, June 15, 2009

Good Readers Reread

Since I have no news of publications to speak of, I will write about what I am reading, or rather, rereading. In my teaching, one of the main tenets I attempt to drill into the heads of my students is: "Good readers reread." It sounds simple enough, and most of us know it intuitively. For example, if you don't understand a sentence, you read it again until you do. If you find a poem confusing (intriguing, mystifying, perplexing), you re-enter it, looking for footholds until you can at least partially ascend some measure of understanding. What struggling readers do not understand is that they don't have to get it the first time. Struggling readers read something once, and if they don't understand, shrug and go on. So that's the first form of the tenet: the micro.

On a macro level, I teach my students that good readers reread old favorites, because a good book has more than one lesson to teach and always rewards second, third, fourth (if you're four, maybe a ninth, tenth, one-hundredth) readings. One of my old favorites is Moby Dick. I recently finished Ahab's Wife, or the Star-Gazer, by Sena Jeter Naslund. I enjoyed it so much that I was inspired to go back and reread Moby Dick as well.

The first time I read it (in college), I finished it at breakfast in Commons, and after sitting stunned a few moments, had the rare urge to dive right back into the first page. Unfortunately, I had a class in five minutes, so my reread has been delayed until now. I just finished "The Whiteness of the Whale" last night. What a voice. The compiling of almost all possible associations of "white" is really quite remarkable. If that had been workshopped, folks would probably have said, "Just give a few examples and leave it at that. Don't try the reader's patience." But the exhaustiveness of the list works so well, of course. It's almost like the heaping on of colors (all colors, in fact) that makes white. In Melville's words:

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows-- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? (186)

Rereading this reminds me of Updike's "ghastly blank," but also makes Una's answer to Ishmael in Ahab's Wife all the more poignant for me: that we are a part of them, and they are a part of us. When I told Sena I was sorry when Ahab's Wife ended, she said, "You can always reread it." I think I will.

Happy rereading,


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