Rereading anything nowadays - other than drafts of theses and texts for teaching - is perhaps a luxury that few of us can still afford, but Patricia Meyer Spacks, recently retired from a long and distinguished career as professor of English at the University of Virginia, has devoted a year to revisiting novels she once loved (and some she hated). There is indeed a certain feeling of guilt, which Spacks fully acknowledges, in wallowing in the kind of "comfort reading" we might allow ourselves on holiday or in hospital, but not on a day when unread books beckon, along with reports, applications, references and all the other paper paraphernalia of academic life. For Spacks, however, this experiment is far more than an extended bout of nostalgia. Rereading is for her, as she neatly summarises, "a way to think about reading", and her book is "an autobiography of thoughts and feelings elicited by novels".
Francis Spufford's highly acclaimed work The Child That Books Built (2002) did something like this for children's literature, and his, too, was a "reading autobiography", which placed books at the heart of his personal development. Of all our favourites, children's books are perhaps the most reread to tatters, and then the most anxiously revisited in later life. Will they still deliver the rush of pleasure, the total absorption of the past? Or will we feel let down, betrayed by stories and characters we no longer care about? Spacks appropriately starts her journey with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which passes the test with flying colours, unlike C.S. Lewis' Narnia stories, which "have stayed too completely the same", especially in terms of their flat characterisation, to deliver any pleasurable surprises.
Spanning a whole lifetime of reading, Spacks arranges her choices under headings that correspond with formative moments and relationships in her emotional and professional development, somewhat like the choice of music that celebrity guests bring to Desert Island Discs. After Jane Austen ("Everyone rereads Jane Austen," claimed a friend of Spacks who otherwise hates rereading), she time-travels through the 1950s to 1970s, contrasts "Books I ought to like" with "Guilty pleasures", and considers both "Professional rereading" and the "Reading together" she enjoyed with her mother and with fellow college students.
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. As she nervously wonders what she will now think of Gone with the Wind or The Golden Notebook, she prepares to be challenged by uncomfortable feelings. On the one hand, familiar novels are associated with stability, sameness and security. On the other, rereading them after a gap of many years forces her to acknowledge difference, newness and even, Spacks suggests, something revolutionary. Either the novels will let her down or she will feel embarrassed by her earlier, untutored taste. Some books always were kindred spirits, others never will be. The distance travelled marks her own evolution as a critical reader reluctant to abandon favourites, but equally resistant to respected classics, such as Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, for which she (still) feels no affinity.
Noted for her work on 18th-century literature, autobiography and women's writing, Spacks largely avoids this territory, and deliberately writes here not as a professional critic, but as an "off-duty" reader, so to speak: relaxed, curious, experimental, genuinely interested to see what she will think of books she once loved or hated. Although she is unavoidably constrained by space, and by her self-imposed framework, the experiment feels authentic. There is something deliciously risky about returning to Middlemarch, gloves off, without the excuse of professional need, and asking oneself, as Spacks does, whether one really, honestly enjoys it. As it happens, Middlemarch too is a winner. Once Spacks has replaced her crumbling teaching copy with an arty new reprint (sacrificing a palimpsest of useful teaching marginalia), she whizzes through the last 600 pages in four days, in a state of "lavish pleasure - including the pleasures of laughter and tears".
Some of Spacks' choices will be less familiar to readers: John Collier's Defy the Foul Fiend (1934), Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia (1942), or a "dirty story" by Edmund Wilson, The Princess with the Golden Hair, which was passed around her freshman dormitory as a means of finding out about sex. Each of these now-forgotten novels served its purpose in Spacks' emotional education, but inevitably in her discussion they require a certain amount of plot reconstruction, which works less well than the sections on more familiar novels. Sociable, shared reading is, of course, a fascinating theme in its own right, given the current popularity of reading groups for non-professional purposes, media-led book clubs and the global experience of the Harry Potter phenomenon.
Most of Spacks' self-imposed reading list, however, is canonical: Emma, The Pickwick Papers, Lucky Jim, The Catcher in the Rye, Gone with the Wind. As each comes up for reappraisal, we hold our breath and watch to see which way it falls. The two types of novel most at risk are those intended to be funny, and those with a serious social or political message. Neither stands the test of time. So far as Lucky Jim is concerned, Spacks is distinctly unamused, and not just because she has now transformed from "insecure and frightened instructor", as she puts it, to "chaired professor emerita". She now finds the novel "childish", needlessly repetitive and offensively aggressive, leaving her puzzled as to why she ever liked it. Spacks pulls over for a while here, and at other crucial moments in her discussion, to park some thoughts about her previous taste, but her changed relationship with books, as she always recognises, is not only a matter of maturing taste or different values. In an autobiographical reading experiment of this kind, the ever-shifting cultural zeitgeist has a way of trivialising rebellion and rendering it redundant. Jim Dixon's hopes of overturning the establishment as embodied in Professor Welch "no longer seem viable, even at the level of fantasy". (Indeed, one might add, Professor Welch, unable to prove "impact" for his musical soirees, might well be joining Jim today as an outlaw from the establishment.)
More congenial is Spacks' final choice, Henry James' The Spoils of Poynton, which she co-taught with colleagues on a first-year composition course at Wellesley College. This was one of her most satisfying shared reading experiences, and a book that generated a buzz both inside and outside the classroom. Coming back to it in retirement, she is "almost immediately hooked by the story". Not that plot, as she argues in this study, looms so large in rereading; nor was it her main concern on this occasion. What she recalls is a vanishing satisfaction of academic life: having time to discuss books, rather than banalities, with academic colleagues. Rereading rich and complex texts with no purpose other than remembering what they were originally meant for - to give us pleasure, and enhance our understanding of ourselves as well as the human condition more generally - is something Spacks in her "defense of reading" more than justifies.
Patricia Meyer Spacks received a BA from Rollins College, Florida, in 1949 and completed her master's in English at Yale University a year later. As Yale was then an all-male institution at undergraduate level and didn't allow women to teach, Spacks moved to the University of California, Berkeley to pursue her doctorate.
At the end of her first year teaching full-time at Indiana University, Spacks married. She later moved to England with her husband when he took up a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Cambridge. "Everything was thrilling to us. The most lasting thrill was the omnipresence of cheap good books on market stalls and in shops. What I enjoyed least were dons who said such things to me as: 'I suppose you feed your husband out of tins.'?"
When they returned to the US two years later, Spacks secured a position at Wellesley College, where she taught for 20 years before taking up posts at Yale and then the University of Virginia.
Spacks says she is a passionate and inventive cook who enjoys entertaining. She once fished keenly, but these days, when not reading, writing or teaching, she prefers to play with her cat, Domino, who came to her via her postwoman, who rescued a litter of kittens from people on her mail route who didn't know how to care for cats.
Spacks, a member of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, is a past president of the Modern Language Association.
By Patricia Meyer Spacks
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 304pp, £19.95
Published 24 November 2011