Reading and Rereading

kosice bookstoreThis is the first of three blog posts on the pitfalls of moving on. (See the introduction here.) Of all the examples of fruitful return, rereading stands out as both obvious and splendid. For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed rereading more than first-time reading; in remembering and rediscovering the book (or poem or play), I not only see new things in it but grasp a different whole. For this to happen, the work does not have to present explicit difficulties; I can reread Lorca’s poem “La guitarra” (in his Poema del cante jondo) and find new clarities and darknesses in it, even though nothing seemed to stump me on the first round.

Continual rereading has its own pitfalls; if you never get around to new books, you will limit the rereading itself. To reread a book, you must have read it in the first place; you must put those old favorites aside and take up this bulky thing that you do not yet know. This is my main “reading difficulty”: those stacks of unread books in my good intentions.

Rereading, then, can only accompany first-time reading. But our culture and economy seem tipped toward the latter: the latest book, the book club selections, the titles that everyone is talking about for a short while. Many of these books disappear as quickly as they come, but if they manage to squeeze some fame and sales out of the air, the publishers and publicists will not complain. Publishers do care what comes out of their presses, but they have to prosper too. So they will publish many urban daylilies along with a few bristlecone pines.

One possible measure of literary quality is longevity: how many times, or over how much time, a work can be read with new understanding and pleasure. A few publishers base their entire work on this principle. Library of America “champions our nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s greatest writing in authoritative new editions and providing resources for readers to explore this rich, living legacy.” Thus the Library of America’s work consists not only of republishing but of rereading too–and reading works that have been there for decades or centuries but that we barely acknowledged with a soporific quote.

A spirit of rereading makes room for first-time readings too. When you look back, you make room for those works you missed. Cynthia Haven’s “Another Look” book discussion series, which she founded with Tobias Wolff, focuses on books that deserve more attention than they have received. For many, these books may be first-time reads, but the club’s name, “Another Look,” suggests return. The series kicked off with William Maxwell’s short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow. I had not read it before; although I could not attend the discussion, I purchased a Library of America edition, read it in time for the event, brought it into my life, and now look forward to a third reading.

So returns and rereading can dissolve the highways of popularity and bring newness out of dust. But it is a complex matter. Exclusive rereading (with no new books) and exclusive first-time reading (with no returns) both constrict. Nor is there a perfect proportion; the balance or imbalance may vary. But rereading can offer a strong corrective to a culture bent on “moving on” to the next new thing. What just came out is not necessarily more important than what came out years ago.

Each summer, at the Dallas Institute, my colleagues and I teach literature: epic in the odd-numbered years and tragedy and comedy in the even-numbered years. This year, when returning to King Lear, I admired the scene where Edgar (in the guise of a stranger) pretends to assist his blinded father, Gloucester, in jumping off a cliff but actually saves him. Having attained the make-believe cliff, which actually is nothing, they have the following exchange (Lear 4.6.25-41):

Edgar. Give me your hand: you are now within a foot
Of th’ extreme verge: for all beneath the moon
Would I not leap upright.

Gloucester.                            Let go my hand.
Here, friend, ‘s another purse; in it a jewel
Well worth a poor man’s taking. Fairies and gods
Prosper it with thee! Go thou further off;
Bid me farewell, and let me hear thee going.

Edgar. Now fare ye well, good sir.

Gloucester. With all my heart.

Edgar. [Aside] Why I do trifle thus with his despair
Is done to cure it.

Gloucester says farewell to the world, jumps, “falls,” and is rescued by Edgar in the guise of another stranger, who speaks of his miraculous survival.

Edgar. Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipatating,
Thou’dst shivered like an egg: but thou dost breathe;
Hast heavy substance; bleed’st not; speak’st; art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.

I have read and loved this scene many times. But on this reading, Edgar’s aside stood out: “Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it.” This may seem an unnecessary explanation; the audience can already guess that Edgar intends to save his father’s life. But Edgar speaks here not of saving a life, but of curing despair; he makes a striking connection between “trifling” with the despair and “curing” it. He invents a lightness, which then surrounds Gloucester’s unfatal fall. “Thy life’s a miracle,” says Edgar–but what makes it a miracle is this very trifling, this creation of precipice, fall, and survival out of level land.

That’s what happens with rereading: it is choreography of words, where the dancers surprise you even after you think you know the whole dance. Rereading holds you up to the book and says, “There’s more, there’s more.”


I took the photo in Košice on May 29.

Popularity Sans Teeth

IMG_3280Mitch Prinstein’s New York Times op-ed “Popular People Live Longer” bounces between conflicting conceptions of popularity and fails to establish a working definition. For this reason I trust neither the premise nor the conclusions. Moreover, it relies heavily on Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s meta-study, which examines the relationship between the quality and quantity of one’s relationships (not popularity exactly) and one’s mortality. But what is popularity anyway? Some clarity would have helped.

In the fourth paragraph, in passing, Prinstein seems to define lack of popularity (“being unpopular”) as “feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely.” This conflation of the subjective and objective confuses the issue. If “being unpopular” is the same as “feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely,” then “being popular” would be the same as “feeling included, connected, fulfilled.” Yet there are plenty of people with few but strong friendships who feel “included, connected, fulfilled.” Does having just a few good friends, then, make you popular, if you feel good about the situation?

If so, then standards definitions of popularity go out the window. In dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster, popularity is associated with “common” or “general” approval, not the strong approval or support of the few, or with one’s own feelings of acceptance and fulfillment. Has Prinstein pulled a Humpty Dumpty on us?

No–I suspect that instead he has just used the wrong word and concept. Popularity is not the issue here. It may be that some combination of the number of one’s friends, the quality of one’s friendships, and one’s own feelings of inclusion can have a great effect on one’s health. In fact, Lunstad and colleagues emphasize the importance of the combination: ” Importantly, the researchers also report that social relationships were more predictive of the risk of death in studies that considered complex measurements of social integration than in studies that considered simple evaluations such as marital status.” (I view Holt-Lunstad’s study cautiously but see possibilities in the general principle.)

In other words, Lunstad’s study is not about popularity in the first place. Prinstein writes that “Dr. Holt-Lunstad found that people who had larger networks of friends had a 50 percent increased chance of survival by the end of the study they were in.” Yet Holt-Lunstad says “stronger,” not “larger”: “Across 148 studies (308,849 participants), the random effects weighted average effect size was OR = 1.50 (95% CI 1.42 to 1.59), indicating a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships.”

Very well. What about Prinstein’s own discussion of popularity?

He wisely distinguishes between different kinds of popularity, particularly between likability and status–and notes that Facebook likes have more to do with the latter than the former. “Which means that it wouldn’t kill you to step away from Twitter once in a while,” he concludes, bringing me close to to liking the piece. Yet he fails to make other necessary distinctions–not only between subjective and objective states, not only between number and quality of relationships, but also between one’s qualities and others’ responses to them, and between likability and virtue overall.

Likability,” he says, “reflects kindness, benevolent leadership and selfless, prosocial behavior.” First of all, likability, defined in this manner, is not equal to being liked; it is just the state of qualifying for being liked. You can show kindness and benevolence and still be shunned by those around you. In fact, this has happened often through the ages.

But there’s another rub. Often to be kind and benevolent, you have to do things that others don’t immediately like. Suppose, for instance, you are the principal of a school that has had ongoing problems with bullying. To curb the bullying, you institute a schoolwide program of discipline and character education. Students start complaining that it’s stupid; teachers, that it’s taking too much time from other things; parents, that their own child doesn’t need it. But you persist with the plan. Over time, the bullying goes away, and the school’s new practices become habitual. People now praise the character education program for its content and effects. Students who used to dread coming to school now thrive in their classes and walk easily down the hallways. But for this to happen, you had to risk being disliked.

That leads to more brambles still. Likability is not the only virtue in life. Often there is reason to do things that come into conflict with likability. Of course, to do good or to accomplish something important, one need not be gratuitously nasty or cold–but sometimes one needs an independent streak, an ability to think and act alone. It is possible that such internal strength also contributes to longevity.

All in all, Prinstein’s working premise needs much more probing, definition, and refinement. In addition, the forthcoming book (from which the op-ed is adapted) needs a new title. Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World mimics Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (and other titles with similar formulas). It’s too late–the book comes out tomorrow–but did the author and publisher choose this title for the sake of popularity? Or was it meant as a tribute? Either way, it’s a shame; the title limits the book by establishing a flawed opposition. Don’t judge a book by its title and accompanying op-ed, I remind myself, but the two leave me with doubts.


I took this photo on Eurovelo 11 in Hungary.

“Poet! do not cling to popular affection….”

So begins Alexander Pushkin’s sonnet “To a Poet” (which could also be translated “To the Poet”). The gist of the poem is clear: don’t cherish popular opinion or affection; live alone; enjoy the freedom of integrity. But what makes the poem memorable is the sternness and liberty of the language. I have been thinking about how this sternness and liberty go together. The liberty is hard won and all too easily surrendered–especially through careless language. Here there is nothing careless.

I recorded and uploaded the poem so that anyone can  hear how it sounds–in my reading, at least. (I found an online recording by someone else, but it has an awful rock beat in the background.)

This sonnet has a rhyme scheme of ABAB ABBA CCD EED. The C rhyme has the same vowel sound as B, and D rhymes obliquely with A. Thus the final sestet carries sonic hints of the first two stanzas–as well as interesting word associations and contrasts: for example, “narodnoi” (popular), “kholodnoi” (cold), “svobodnoi” (free), “blagorodnyi” (noble), “khudozhnik” (artist), and “trenozhnik” (tripod).

The first stanza can be translated literally as follows:

Poet! do not cling to popular affection.*
The temporary noise of ecstatic praises will pass;
You will hear the fool’s judgment, the laugh of the cold crowd,
But you must remain firm, calm, and morose.

In Russian, it’s much more majestic and severe:

Поэт! не дорожи любовию народной.
Восторженных похвал пройдет минутный шум;
Услышишь суд глупца и смех толпы холодной,
Но ты останься тверд, спокоен и угрюм.

It’s in a slow-paced iambic hexameter, with word ordering that English does not allow (e.g., in the second line, “Of the ecstatic praises will pass the momentary noise”). The last word “угрюм” (“ugrium, ” “morose”) stresses the seriousness of the matter. This is no pleasant conversation-piece.

In the second stanza, the emphasis shifts to the poet’s internal liberty, once he has established the conditions for it. The language is gentler and more whimsical, with repetition of the word for “free”:

You are a tsar; live alone. By way of the free road
Go wherever your free mind draws you,
Perfecting the fruits of your beloved thoughts,
Not asking  any rewards for your noble feat.

In Russian, you can hear the stanza’s fluidity:

Ты царь: живи один. Дорогою свободной
Иди, куда влечет тебя свободный ум,
Усовершенствуя плоды любимых дум,
Не требуя наград за подвиг благородный.

Then the final sestet reflects the first two stanzas in a kind of skewed symmetry. The first tercet continues to refer to the artist and his work; then the final three lines, like the first four, return to the crowd and its judgments, contrasted with the poet’s work. In Russian:

Они в самом тебе. Ты сам свой высший суд;
Всех строже оценить умеешь ты свой труд.
Ты им доволен ли, взыскательный художник?

Доволен? Так пускай толпа его бранит
И плюет на алтарь, где твой огонь горит,
И в детской резвости колеблет твой треножник.

And in an literal English translation:

They are inside you. You are your highest judge;
More strictly than anyone can you appraise your work.
Are you satisfied with it, exacting artist?

Satisfied? Then let the crowd treat it harshly
And spit on the altar, where your fire burns
And your tripod oscillates with childlike friskiness.

This translation does not come close to capturing the last two lines: the plosive of sound of “plyuyet” (“spits”) and the tripod wavering through friskiness. To me, everything builds to that final line, which is as strange as it is vivid.

As I was reciting the sonnet this morning, I heard the combination of liberty and severity in the sounds themselves. The poem is didactic but goes far beyond its overt lesson; one comes close to that tripod and feels it wavering–not out of hesitation, but out of vitality.

*Note: I have been dissatisfied with my literal translation of the first line. I changed it to “Poet! do not cling to popular affection”–which, though not literally exact, feels much less awkward than the previous “Poet! do not cherish the love of the people.”