I’m reading Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy. Or rather I’m re-reading it, but it’s been so long since I last read it that I forgot I already owned a copy!
It got me thinking about repeating experiences and how they’re never the same. Reading the same book again and again really ought to be a repeatable experience, after all, the words haven’t changed. But a reader brings so much of themselves to the enjoyment of a book that it’s still different every time.
Maybe knowing the story before you start changes things. Recent research suggests it might even improve the experience.(via robaroundbooks.com) Perhaps knowing how it ends let’s us enjoy the journey so much more. We can take the time to enjoy the quality prose that we hardly noticed the first time as we got embroiled in the complex plot.
But the real joy in re-reading a book is the fact that stuff has happened in our lives since we read it last. Now the mention of that street invokes a whole set of memories that weren’t there last time. That incident has a whole new complexion after what happened to our friend.
It isn’t just high-brow books we experience this with. Try watching an old episode of a sitcom that you’ve seen before. You know all the jokes, so they won’t be funny this time, will they? And yet, some of the jokes you remember are funnier, you’re already laughing at the remembered punchline when the gag starts. And other jokes seem to appear that you didn’t even notice the first time. Maybe they just weren’t as apposite back then.
Of course the big difference in my enjoyment of Cities of the Plain is that I’ve published a Western of my own since I last read it. I hope everyone accidentally buys a second copy of my book too!