Meditations on Re-Reading

Précis: Meditations on re-reading The Dark Tower series. Thoughts on the practice of re-reading, especially at regular intervals; considerations of the temporal experience of re-reading and what it can tell us about making a better world.


NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD

My wife gave me a complete set of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower for our wedding anniversary, and I’ve decided to attempt a yearly re-reading of the series. I read the series for the first time about two years ago on the recommendation of my father-in-law and loved it. Now that we’re all quarantined and the sense of time is slipping and getting fuzzy (at least for me), I found myself gravitating back to The Dark Tower for reasons that I’ll make clear later. I’ve just finished volume two of the series, The Drawing of the Three. I have final papers to write and final grades to assign in the next week and a half or so, so I probably won’t get started on volume three, The Waste Lands, for a couple weeks.

NOTE, AGAIN: SERIES SPOILERS AHEAD

The Dark Tower series is cyclical. The first and last lines of the series, which King has described as one long novel in several volumes, are the same: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Roland’s quest for the tower is an eternal cycle, although one that might be eventually end. He and his ka-tet, those bound by destiny, travel though worlds that have “moved on,” with the trappings of technology and civilization degrading and degenerating into unusability. Through a series of trials, the ka-tet travels to the Dark Tower, the nexus that holds together all of the worlds to face the Red King who is intent on destroying the multiverse held together by great Beams that intersect at the Dark Tower. I’ll leave it to the reader to find out for themself whether Roland is successful.

The cyclical nature of The Dark Tower saga makes it an interesting point of departure for some meditations on re-reading. I will mostly focus here on re-reading novels, but will address re-reading non-fiction (especially philosophy) toward the end of this essay. I’ll be making quick and dirty use of some ideas from the work of French philosopher Gilbert Simondon (filtered through that of another French philosopher, Bernard Stiegler.) This isn’t a formal paper so I’m dispensing with footnotes, etc. Besides, I’m really just using on concept as a starting point.

In the first reading of a novel, everything is new and surprising. The reader is pulled along through the narrative both by its novelty and by the impulse of the plot. The plot basically implies or poses questions – what happens next? how does this end? Even in formulaically written “genre fiction” like detective novels, techno-thrillers, or supernatural romances, part of the pleasure of a well-written novel is the way it manipulates the reader’s expectations and provides novelty. For example, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files plays with the hard-boiled genre of noir detective fiction by making its protagonist a wizard (really – and it’s not YA fiction like Harry Potter). Long-time readers of detective fiction will recognize some common tropes from other exemplars of the genre, like the protagonist’s hard-boiled but ultimately moral and heroic nature and the incompetence of most of the police, and the fun twist is that Harry Dresden, the protagonist, is an honest-to-goodness wizard. The novelty of the plot in this example, then, is not the form of the plot itself, which is an established genre, but the twists and idiosyncrasies Butcher incorporates into it.

For Simondon, and Husserl before him, perception is not a passive act. All objects of perception are understood through the mind of the perceiver, and this mind is not just a receptacle for perception. The mind actively reaches out, “protends” toward new perceptions based to some degree on previous perceptions it has retained. As an illustration, think of a person standing on a beach watching the waves break. A person who knows how to surf sees the waves differently than one who does not, or one who is more interested in fishing than surfing. It’s not that the surfer sees “more” than the non-surfer, just that the surfer perceives different aspects of the same object that she knows how to look for and considers important.

After the initial perception, which again is not “pure” – there is no “pure” or non-judgmental perception – elements of the perception which were “protended” for, toward which the perceiver’s attention stretched, organize how those perceptions are retained in memory. The non-surfer may go home happy and feeling calm and peaceful because the waves only lapped gently at the shore that day, while the surfer may go home frustrated for the same reason.

Yes, but what does this have to do with (re)reading? As I said above, the first reading of a novel is new in the sense that, even given previous experience of the genre of novel one reads – or the experience of reading novels at all, this particular novel is new to the reader. We don’t know what happens yet, so we read on (or don’t.) It is easy to forget that even this first reading is not “pure” in the sense of non-judgmental perception. To continue with the example of genre fiction, The Dresden Files is obviously and immediately a detective novel, albeit an idiosyncratic one, so noir-junkies will “protend” expectations into the text that more casual readers of the genre might not, even if they recognize the presence of generic tropes. Even more basic, however, are the protentions inculcated in readers by our social frameworks that help us make sense of novels at all. The novel is a relatively recent form of literary creation. For Homer, for example, novels would probably not have made much sense, even if he could have read one, because they differ dramatically from the forms of literary production common to Homer’s time and cultural background.

On a second or subsequent reading of a text, the protentions one brings to a novel might become more clear. For example, maybe you read a book and told a friend about it, who then told you that every time a character stands up to do something in the novel he is described as “stretching his legs.” You didn’t notice this, and so you re-read the book with this claim in mind. Sure enough, you find to your dismay that this character does indeed do a lot of leg stretching. This example is somewhat prosaic, but it points to two important aspects of re-reading I think are worth lingering with.

First, perception is not passive and never “pure.” It can be “primed” to look for certain things and mark them where it may not have otherwise. I’ll talk later about how this can be used for making the world better, but it’s worth stopping a moment to consider the negative version of this kind of “priming:” conspiracy theory.

Again, this is blog post so I won’t go deep into the psychology or subjectivity of conspiracy theorists, but will only pause to point out that conspiracy theory is protention gone awry. The conspiracy theorist sees the object of their obsession everywhere, and any piece of information can be made to fit their understanding structured by this mis-protention. “Of course they’d say that, they’re X kind of person, in the pay of the Deep State, etc.” The problem here is not that the conspiracy theorist doesn’t see things “objectively.” Again, no one ever does. Rather, the problem is that they have hyper-extended their protention so they can never be wrong. At no point can they be brought up short and be required to rethink their claims or incorporate new evidence into a revised and necessarily partial (both in the sense of “incomplete” and in the sense of “interested,” like “I’m partial to”) understanding. For all they like to claim to be thinking, this is in fact exactly the opposite of thinking.

Second, perception can be trained and altered in line with one’s goals. An aspiring novelist, for example, might approach a novel she has enjoyed in the past with the intention to look for, that is protend her perception into, the stylistic and formal qualities of the novel rather than simply its plot and dialogue. She isn’t seeing anything that wasn’t there on her first reading, only actively looking for data in the same text that mean something different to her in line with her new goals. This is obvious to anyone who majored in English because they liked to read. Reading Frankenstein for pleasure is very different than reading it for your final paper.

It’s worth pausing here again to point out an important point. We protend into new perceptions constantly, whether consciously or not. We cannot “suspend judgment” completely, and have to be trained to do so even to a modest degree. If we could all magically see things “as they really are,” there would be no need for lawyers or negotiators. One of the possibilities re-reading allows is the opportunity to carefully consider and examine the protentions we bring to the object of our attention, and whether we want to continue using those protentions. This requires us to think carefully about what we are looking for, and, even more importantly, about why.

“Why” is the most difficult question, but in a sense also the most natural. We don’t do things for no reason. Humans are capable of intention and making choices in the world, a world which is of our own design. Death and taxes may be certain, as the saying goes, but these are not really the same kind of thing. Death is the great unifier. Everyone dies, and has always done so, regardless of where, when or how they lived. Taxes, on the other hand, require a whole host of other things to exist in order to make sense at all: money, the state, a sense of “civic duty” or responsibility, accounting, and so on. All of these things are produced and reproduced by humans and, because they are produced by humans, could be reproduced in other ways or ended entirely. This might seem obvious to some, but for others the idea that death and taxes have the same kind of certainty is an article of faith. Like conspiracy theories, claiming that the way the human-created world is is somehow “natural” inhibits thought, rather than stimulating it. For an example, consider the time and energy spent by Southern writers and politicians in trying to convince people that slavery was “natural.” A practice that we perceive with disgust was not only accepted but claimed to be natural not even two centuries ago.

This example should prick us to reflection then. What do we think is “natural” that is in fact part of the human-constructed world that could operate differently? And how could we make it that way?

Re-reading, then, is a useful way to illustrate a capacity humans have that goes far beyond just looking for hints at how to be a good novelist in a book one enjoys. By attending to our protentions and considering what we bring to a text and why, we can gain experience in performing similar acts of attentive consideration to the broader human-constructed world we live in. This is especially important in a time when media are reduced to “content” made to be “consumed.” To re-read a book, especially to re-read it with a particular goal in mind for a particular purpose is a weird atavism now. Sure, re-read it if you like it, but what are you looking for? Why make the effort? Just enjoy it!

(Note for another time: one consideration we might attend to is why the work I’m describing here, of reading and thinking critically, is not considered “fun.” Or why “fun” things seem to be the only things many people consider worth doing.)

Re-reading is an essential practice, especially in a world dominated by the drive of consumption. Many novels, television shows, movies, video games, and other media aren’t worth re-visiting, but those that are, ought to be. The critical faculties developed through the practice of re-reading may be all that stands between the hope of human lives worth living, and the possibility of precarity, penury, and nastiness, of lives of pure and thoughtless consumption, of lives without even a bad “why,” where our protending is simply done for us.

I may seem to be overstating the power of re-reading. It’s true, I probably am. But we are (always) living in the Kali Yuga, the time before the end of the world, and it’s worth starting somewhere.