On Rereading

Overview

After retiring from a lifetime of teaching literature, Patricia Meyer Spacks embarked on a year-long project of rereading dozens of novels: childhood favorites, fiction first encountered in young adulthood and never before revisited, books frequently reread, canonical works of literature she was supposed to have liked but didn’t, guilty pleasures (books she oughtn’t to have liked but did), and stories reread for fun vs. those read for the classroom. On Rereading records the sometimes surprising, always ...

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On Rereading

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Overview

After retiring from a lifetime of teaching literature, Patricia Meyer Spacks embarked on a year-long project of rereading dozens of novels: childhood favorites, fiction first encountered in young adulthood and never before revisited, books frequently reread, canonical works of literature she was supposed to have liked but didn’t, guilty pleasures (books she oughtn’t to have liked but did), and stories reread for fun vs. those read for the classroom. On Rereading records the sometimes surprising, always fascinating, results of her personal experiment.

Spacks addresses a number of intriguing questions raised by the purposeful act of rereading: Why do we reread novels when, in many instances, we can remember the plot? Why, for example, do some lovers of Jane Austen’s fiction reread her novels every year (or oftener)? Why do young children love to hear the same story read aloud every night at bedtime? And why, as adults, do we return to childhood favorites such as The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, and the Harry Potter novels? What pleasures does rereading bring? What psychological needs does it answer? What guilt does it induce when life is short and there are so many other things to do (and so many other books to read)? Rereading, Spacks discovers, helps us to make sense of ourselves. It brings us sharply in contact with how we, like the books we reread, have both changed and remained the same.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
Agreeing or disagreeing with [Spacks's] judgments…is not really the point; the responses that rereading evokes are the real meat of On Rereading, and these she describes with acuity and accuracy…[an] excellent book.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In this accessible, sometimes engaging, but often repetitive and predictable "autobiography of thoughts and feelings elicited by novels," Spacks, an emeritus University of Virginia literature professor, revisits an array of formative texts from her childhood, adolescence, and academic career. To investigate rereading's "continuum between stability and change," Spacks first focuses on the unexpected rewards and occasional disappointments of reexamining children's literature from an adult perspective. This establishes a pattern that generally holds for the rest of the book: lively close readings of texts, which may or may not explicitly pertain to rereading, followed by bland reiterations of her conclusions about the value of revisiting texts. The three chapters on rereading novels emblematic of certain eras (the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s) seem little more than extended musings on the fact that culture, family, and friends affect our reading experiences. Spacks's insistent focus on her personal history and experiences, while inherent to her project, is especially wearisome here. A later chapter on "professional rereading." which deals with the work of literary scholarship and larger concerns regarding the canon, proves much stronger. However, the book's often obvious conclusions and absorption with the author's own experiences leave it unable to overcome the question it poses about Saul Bellow's Herzog: "And why should a reader care?" (Nov.)
New Yorker blog

[A] charming and strange blend of memoir, literary criticism, and scientific treatise.
— Nathaniel Stein

Prospect

An absorbing, detailed account of books [Spacks] has reread over the years.
— Fatema Ahmed

Washington Post

Patricia Meyer Spacks, who has taught literature at a number of distinguished colleges and universities over the past half-century—she is now the Edgar Shannon Professor of English Emerita at the University of Virginia—is something of a rarity among those who practice her trade these days: She reads for pure pleasure as well as for professional obligations, and she understands that pleasure is a legitimate, valuable goal in and of itself. Reading fiction has the power to expose one to large truths about human existence, but there is more to it than that...An excellent book.
— Jonathan Yardley

Inside Higher Ed

A book remains the same through time, but the context and personality of the reader don't. Whether the consequence is nostalgia or embarrassment can be the luck of the draw. Some of the most interesting material in On Rereading concerns the bewilderment that can occur upon revisiting a once-beloved work and finding that the thrill is gone.
— Scott McLemee

Austenprose

An interesting hybrid of literary criticism and memoir...Spacks' book, particularly her first chapter which I think is her best chapter, is worth the read if you've ever been interested in this question of why we read the same books over and over. But, fair warning, you'll probably feel the urge to pick up an old favorite as soon as you're done.
— Aia A. Hussein

Bookforum

Spacks is charming and pellucid in recounting her sense of why we reread a book and how frequently we find the experience a shock to our expectations.
— Eric Banks

Times Literary Supplement

[A] remarkable meditation…Words such as 'joy,' 'enjoy' and 'pleasure' recur throughout the study; and while it might be refreshing in itself to hear such unfashionable words bandied about, Spacks's true achievement lies in her insistence that they belong in the same world as more rigorously analytical terms and ideas…The analysis of pleasure, the pleasure of analysis: the twinning of these qualities underlies the most illuminating chapters of On Rereading, in which Spacks revisits works that once bored or repelled her, and ones for which her initial enthusiasm may have been ephemeral.
— Bharat Tandon

Weekend Australian

[An] erudite and often surprising book...There is plenty to think about and argue with throughout this book...On Rereading brings a sharp, questing academic mind to its task. It is also deeply personal, honest, clear and engaging.
— Agnes Nieuwenhuizen

New Yorker blog - Nathaniel Stein
[A] charming and strange blend of memoir, literary criticism, and scientific treatise.
Prospect - Fatema Ahmed
An absorbing, detailed account of books [Spacks] has reread over the years.
Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley
Patricia Meyer Spacks, who has taught literature at a number of distinguished colleges and universities over the past half-century--she is now the Edgar Shannon Professor of English Emerita at the University of Virginia--is something of a rarity among those who practice her trade these days: She reads for pure pleasure as well as for professional obligations, and she understands that pleasure is a legitimate, valuable goal in and of itself. Reading fiction has the power to expose one to large truths about human existence, but there is more to it than that...An excellent book.
Inside Higher Ed - Scott McLemee
A book remains the same through time, but the context and personality of the reader don't. Whether the consequence is nostalgia or embarrassment can be the luck of the draw. Some of the most interesting material in On Rereading concerns the bewilderment that can occur upon revisiting a once-beloved work and finding that the thrill is gone.
Austenprose - Aia A. Hussein
An interesting hybrid of literary criticism and memoir...Spacks' book, particularly her first chapter which I think is her best chapter, is worth the read if you've ever been interested in this question of why we read the same books over and over. But, fair warning, you'll probably feel the urge to pick up an old favorite as soon as you're done.
Bookforum - Eric Banks
Spacks is charming and pellucid in recounting her sense of why we reread a book and how frequently we find the experience a shock to our expectations.
Times Literary Supplement - Bharat Tandon
[A] remarkable meditation…Words such as 'joy,' 'enjoy' and 'pleasure' recur throughout the study; and while it might be refreshing in itself to hear such unfashionable words bandied about, Spacks's true achievement lies in her insistence that they belong in the same world as more rigorously analytical terms and ideas…The analysis of pleasure, the pleasure of analysis: the twinning of these qualities underlies the most illuminating chapters of On Rereading, in which Spacks revisits works that once bored or repelled her, and ones for which her initial enthusiasm may have been ephemeral.
Weekend Australian - Agnes Nieuwenhuizen
[An] erudite and often surprising book...There is plenty to think about and argue with throughout this book...On Rereading brings a sharp, questing academic mind to its task. It is also deeply personal, honest, clear and engaging.
Library Journal
"Books help to constitute our identity," writes Spacks (Edgar Shannon Professor of English Emerita, Univ. of Virginia; The Female Imagination). After her retirement, she found time to devote to reading books anew that she had read over the course of six decades. She here reexamines her childhood favorites (Alice in Wonderland; Kidnapped), books she loved on first reading (Brighton Rock; Wives and Daughters), and books she disliked (The Pickwick Papers; Herzog). She devotes an entire chapter to reanalyzing Jane Austen novels. In other chapters, she assesses the feasibility of disentangling "personal and social history" when rereading a work after many years. Spacks tests this hypothesis in three chapters in which she reexamines novels published and first read during the 1950s (Catcher in the Rye), 1960s (The Golden Notebook), and 1970s (The Sacred and Profane Love Machine) and discovers that her opinions have changed radically. Spacks questions many of her past literary judgments with candor and harsh self-criticism, emphasizing that rereading explores "new ground" and is never dispassionate. VERDICT An insightful and compelling book that will appeal to all fans of literature and students of literary theory.—Erica Swenson Danowitz, Delaware Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Media, PA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674725898
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 11/18/2013
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,368,149
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Patricia Meyer Spacks is Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English, Emerita, at the University of Virginia.
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