How Novels Work
How Novels Work
Some books we read once, but some we go back to. The literature we most value is what we revisit. For special kinds of writing, repetition can be the whole point. The intense pleasures of poetry are usually understood as coming from rereadings. Popular poetry anthologies and radio programmes enact these pleasures, reminding us of what we already knew as much as introducing us to what is yet unknown. In the ultimate example of being able to return to what we once read, we may even have poems or parts of poems by heart, in store. In rare cases, readers will have fragments of novels—resonant opening lines, perhaps—preserved in their memories. When the novelist William Thackeray first dined with Charlotte Brontë, he discomposed her by quoting from memory, as he smoked an after-dinner cigar, some cigar-smoke-inspired lines from Jane Eyre (1847)—lines that lead us to the heroine's meeting with Rochester in the garden of Thornfield, and to his first declaration of love for her. 'Sweet-briar and southernwood, jasmine, pink, and rose have long been yielding their evening sacrifice of incense: this new scent is neither of shrub nor flower; it is—I know it well—it is Mr Rochester's cigar' (vol. ii, ch. 8, 279). Thackeray had been gripped by Brontë's novel, first reading it right through in a single day, and then returning to savour it. Few readers will have extracts from their favourite novels seared on the memory like this, but all will know the gratification of coming again upon a passage that made some special impression on a previous reading.
Going back to a novel that you have read before marks it out.