on re-reading

Those who study linguistics call the act of reading a frozen form of communication. I have always whole-heartedly disagreed with this label. The words on the page1 do not change, that I’ll grant.2 But to say that the interaction between the text and the reader is permanent in any way is a fallacy.

Leave emotional responses out of the argument for a while if you will. Think about how the act of reading intellectually is affected as one reads.

A description of a character on page 600 can retroactively change how a reader has visualized that character up to that point.

Filling in a piece of the plot – having a Bond villain give every detail of his nefarious plan as the novel draws to a close – pulls together pieces that a reader simply couldn’t pull together before, and does this retroactively.

A book starts out by teaching the reader how to read it. It sets up expectations that it will later consciously manipulate, changing everything the reader how known all along.

Reading isn’t a frozen form of communication. It’s time travel.3

Re-reading, then, is time travel with a simultaneous self. The reader is current in the present, in the here and now. But she encounters her past self within a novel’s words. She remembers things she forgot, discovers things she missed, and gets to experience the text with the singular advantage of having already experienced the text.4

This is why I enjoy re-reading. As fun as it is to read a text without having to concern myself with where the story is going, which lets me focus on other things like language and characterization, it’s also fun because I run into my previous self around certain corners. Not just thoughts I had at that point in the book, but even where I was – physically – when I read that passage. I remember where I was and how I got to where I am now – all within a single sentence or metaphor.5

It really is like having a flux capacitor.

Back in December I decided to re-read Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. When he first finally published the last three books back in 2004 I was astoundingly pissed at how he finished the series. It wasn’t just the ending or that I’d been invested in this story since the eighth freaking grade, he did some things that just really upset me.

A lot.

I haven’t read any of his books since. Not the new ones. Not even my old favorites. That’s how mad I was.

Thing is, while I remember why I was so mad, so upset and betrayed, I know that just like everything else, since 2004 I have changed.6

A lot.

So it’s worth giving Mr. King’s opus another shot. I am enjoying it, yes, but I’ve not yet gotten to the parts that pissed me off so much. So we’ll see.

But whatever the case, whether I change my mind or not, I think I’ll continue to enjoy running into my old self.

As long as I don’t rip a hole in the time-space continuum.


  1. And/or screen, for the e-reader-inclined.
  2. Statement describes reading experience typical of most readers. Individual results may vary.
  3. Without the need to
    1. Buy a Delorean
    2. Hit one’s head on a toilet
    3. Invent the flux capacitor
    4. Steal plutonium from Libyan terrorists.
  4. Much like how Marty McFly knew to find Biff at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance because Marty’d already experienced this experience. Just so, Marty encounters his past self. (Well, actually avoids his past self.)
  5. Though let’s recall what Milan Kundera said: “Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor could give birth to love.” Certainly that kind of power could also navigate the temporal realm.
  6. The world has moved on, it seems.
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