Written by Chloe Manchester
As a student, the end of August seems much more of a beginning than the first of January. When summer’s end is around the bend and September rolls around, I suffer a severe melancholy that can only be cured by the acutely erudite and affecting prose of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History; I’m on my sixth read. Tartt waxes poetic on the blithe atmosphere of summer sinking into the heavy curtain of fall, of leaves and light darkening around the despondent stir of a college town, and tells a compelling story through the Nick Carraway-esque narrator, Richard Papen, fresh off the bus from California for the first time. The magic of possibility is a familiar thrill.
Rereading as a practice is a worthwhile task. The reading experience of a book will never be the same because of the ever-evolving versions of ourselves we inevitably bring to it. Certain life experiences make a reader more sensitive to details in the book, and the reader gains a new appreciation because life itself has influenced how they understand the book. Rereading can also bring a surprising sense of pride at the intellectual distance a reader has run – understanding a word or allusion, recognizing a joke that previously flew over one’s head, or knocking a favorite character off his pedestal and seeing his flaws for what they are. On a more playful note, rereading can remind one of the silliness of passages read in a different state of maturity. Sergio Pitol articulates this idea better than I could in his book The Magician of Vienna:
During adolescence, when every reader is still a wellspring of generosity, one may read with enjoyment, with enthusiasm, and even copy in an intimate notebook entire paragraphs from a book that, when reread years later, when his taste has been refined, he discovers with surprise, with scandal, even with horror, that it was all an unpardonable mistake. To admire as a masterpiece such a revolting load of tosh! To consider as a fountain of life that clumsy language that doubtlessly had been stillborn? How disgraceful!
At first read, the characters from The Secret History are bewitching, intimidating, impossibly intelligent. Richard is captivated by their glamorous style, their prowess at Ancient Greek, and their close bond (especially enticing considering Richard’s own glaring lack of companionship). By the time Richard discovers their dark secret, he is too fascinated by them, and too invested in his friendships with them, to be properly horrified. Haven’t we all been dangerously charmed at some point or another? The Secret History is a siren call, luring readers in with exquisite sentences and enthralling characters to a point at which the reader is too distracted, too enchanted, to see the moral depravity tucked between each page. Of course I fell prey! Tartt has tested me, I’ve lost almost every time, but now the tides are shifting. It took until my fifth read to snap myself out of the reverie, to see the debauchery as something to be reviled, rather than written off as a side-effect of intelligence. Now I see the characters’ pretension as laughable —something to be pitied— and their curated sense of selves to be exhausting, derivative. Isn’t maturity funny like that? I am no longer blinded by my own desperation to be smarter, more fashionable, more mysterious like Tartt’s characters. But surely I never wanted to be like them? Surely there is something more to learn from the book. Perhaps one day I will master it.
I remember my past self, I mourn the impossibility of ever returning to that particular me.
Rereading allows space for me to remember my past self, however distant or near she may be. I remember little moments, big feelings. While I hardly think I could ever find Tartt’s language to be a revolting load of tosh (as Pitol charmingly put it), it is entertaining to read what I found most meaningful while deep in the throes of teenage angst. At fourteen, I watched The Twilight Zone with my parents every Friday night, managing to enjoy their company despite the pitiful glances,all of us wishing I would just make a goddamn friend and spare us this misery. At fifteen, my sister’s departure for college left me an only child with layers of silence upon silence. At sixteen, I had a best friend, and on rainy days we would put our yellow raincoats on and circumambulate the lake, watching the slate of rain under the amber depth of streetlamps. At seventeen, I had a boyfriend. I couldn’t tell if I liked him and I learned how to write. At eighteen, I had a new boyfriend, and I liked this one even less. I tried to force love, I tried to make him love my books—both catastrophic failures. At nineteen, I was lost and weepy and bitter about having to settle for a school constructed of dull beige blocks in Texas instead of the ancient ivy-coated stone of a New England college like I’d always planned on. At twenty, I cannot believe I am the same age as the characters in this book. No murders yet (knock on wood).
I am an avid underliner, and so have clear evidence of what I found and find especially striking. The markings on the pages of my well-worn book remind me of those divine specifics. Like rings on a tree stump, the vibrancy of the ink reveals what year I underlined which specific passage, in turn reminding me of who I was at that moment in time. At fourteen, I related too heavily to Richard’s matter-of-fact assertion that “in short, I felt my existence was tainted, in some subtle but essential way.” At sixteen, my world burst open, and every experience “had the quality of a memory; there it was, right before my eyes, and yet too beautiful to believe.” At eighteen, I wept reading that “it is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from all the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own.”
Glancing at these annotations is like a gut punch of nostalgia, and seeing those lines opens up an emotional chasm I can’t help but fall into. I revel in how impossibly far away they seem. I remember my past self, I mourn the impossibility of ever returning to that particular me. I’m satisfied with how much growth it took to make this version, right now, my present-tense self. I can rely on the static stability of this and every story to support me as I shift and transform and change, functioning as a constant against which I can measure my growth. Richard is naive, and maybe I am too, but we’re working on it together. Who knows who I’ll be next fall.