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the Complete Review
the complete review - reading / literature

On Rereading

Patricia Meyer Spacks

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To purchase On Rereading

Title: On Rereading
Author: Patricia Meyer Spacks
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2011
Length: 280 pages
Availability: On Rereading - US
On Rereading - UK
On Rereading - Canada
On Rereading - India

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Our Assessment:

B : fine overview and personal account

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Times Higher Education . 15/12/2011 Valerie Sanders
The Washington Post . 18/11/2011 Jonathan Yardley

  From the Reviews:
  • "The result is an intriguingly unpredictable extended reflection on the interplay of memory, nostalgia, taste and judgement in relation to the books that, at some point in Spacks' life, made a difference to her personal and intellectual growth." - Valerie Sanders, Times Higher Education

  • "Agreeing or disagreeing with her judgments, though, is not really the point; the responses that rereading evokes are the real meat of On Rereading, and these she describes with acuity and accuracy. I do have a couple of bones to pick with what is otherwise an excellent book." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In On Rereading longtime professor of English Patricia Meyer Spacks offers: "an autobiography of thoughts and feelings elicited by novels", as she takes a personal and reflective approach to her subject matter. She writes of her own experiences, comparing what she remembers of initial (and previous) readings of a text, and then a present-day re-reading -- though she does also consider the subject matter more generally, wondering how her experiences and motivations might differ from others'.
       While limiting her rereading to novels, Spacks otherwise ranges fairly widely, at least as far as approaches to rereading go. She includes, for example, chapters on 'Books I Ought to Like', books from a few different eras (the 1950s, 60s, and 70s), and 'Guilty Pleasures'. A voracious reader from early childhood on, and then a teacher of literature, Spacks would seem to have her pick of books to return to; nevertheless, it does turn out to be a somewhat limited selection -- and she also shows her age. And she prefers to focus on a fairly small number of titles: the chapter on the 1960s, for example, deals solely with Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, and for the 1970s it's Iris Murdoch's The Sacred and Profane Love Machine -- reasonable choices, perhaps, but a very thin slice of these decades.
       If limited in the number of titles she discusses, Spacks does offer close rereadings, carefully analyzing how she now sees these various texts, from a childhood favorite such as Alice in Wonderland to books she: "recalled as providing unpleasant, or at least non-pleasant experiences" (for the record: Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier, and Bellow's Herzog). Naturally, the selection is very personal -- which also somewhat limits what's on offer: Jane Austen may be quite universal (Spacks notes with amazement how many people continue to frequently reread Austen's work), but Spacks' 'guilty pleasures', for example, are very, very, very old school (Wodehouse and Arnold Bennett ...). Indeed, overall the range is very limited: practically nothing in translation rates even a mention, and there's little that qualifies as popular fiction beyond canonized works such as The Catcher in the Rye (or the likes of Wodehouse, Greene's Brighton Rock etc.); Spacks' lifelong immersion and background in 'English literature' (of the academic sort) strongly colors the selection at hand. (Her precocity also plays a role -- she was a college freshman at fifteen .....)
       It's too bad: the shared reading experiences, where she comes closest to slumming it, are particularly interesting accounts -- in part also because she ties these in more closely with the very personal. (She describes her experiences with Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia, a rare book her mother also picked up, and Edmund Wilson's Memoirs of Hecate County, passed around in her freshman dorm at college.)
       If colored by her unusual -- but at least very well-read (in a certain (but at least popular) field) -- background, Spacks' book nevertheless does address many of the questions and issues that arise from rereading, and her discussions of these are interesting and quite enjoyable. She takes a somewhat scientific approach in tackling her 'project' (as she calls it), testing out, as it were, a variety of kinds of books -- from ones she frequently returns to to those she did not much enjoy the first time around, as well as from various periods of her life -- and this allows her to consider differing aspects of rereading. The English teacher in her also reveals itself, as her readings of the books often make for interesting analyses, and the comparison between remembered impressions and revisiting a text does often prove illuminating in some way.
       If not quite as easy to relate to as an account by a reader with more similar and contemporary tastes might be, her reliance on touchstones (most of these books, as classics of one sort or another, will likely be familiar to many of her readers) does make for adequate commonality. And her style and examples make for a quite engaging read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 February 2012

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On Rereading: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American writer Patricia Meyer Spacks was born in 1929.

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