I finished re-reading Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood a week or so ago, and the experience was … not particularly remarkable. I’ve been hesitant to write about it because I wasn’t sure I had much to say, and I thought the experience should have been more significant than it was. It feels a bit like a reading failure, as though I should now have major new insights into the book, when I simply don’t. I understood more of it on the second go-round, but not a hugely significant amount more. I appreciated the language once again, and perhaps a bit more the second time around, but I didn’t have any new revelations about it. The experience of reading the novel the second time around wasn’t exactly the same as the first, as I felt much more confident in my reading the second time since I knew what to expect, but it was distressingly similar.
Now I wonder if this is the book’s fault or mine. Or perhaps I was expecting too much? I’m thinking it’s at least partly my fault, as others have loved this novel and praised it highly and taught it and published articles on it, and so there must be a lot going on that I’m not getting. But I’m also thinking that perhaps I’m simply reading it the wrong way (or the “wrong” way) — that I’m still struggling for logical meaning when that isn’t what the book is offering me. I’m not saying that the book doesn’t make any sense, because it does, at least in places, but there are many sentences that leave me puzzled. In my re-reading, I was hoping to make sense of more of those sentences, which would then, I hoped, lead me to more insights into the book’s ideas and themes. But perhaps I would have been better off re-reading for the poetry of it, or to get a deeper sense of character (which, I will say, I got). And I don’t mean to imply that reading mainly for logical meaning is superior to reading mainly for the beauty of the language (see this post for a discussion of that issue), simply that reading for language wasn’t my emphasis.
Maybe, though, I should have let more time elapse before a re-reading. Perhaps the first reading was still too fresh in my mind and I needed some time away from the book to let it simmer and stew in my brain for a while.
Is there an optimal amount of time that should elapse between readings of a novel? It seems that if you wait too long, you’ll forget the first reading, so that the second reading is really exactly the same as the first. And maybe if you re-read too soon, the book will be too familiar and the first reading too heavy in your mind to allow you to see new things. Hmmm … I’m not sure.