While it’s probably a truism that books don’t change, we do, I’ve been experiencing that in a weird and interesting way as I read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I read the book when I was an undergraduate, and to this day my memory of reading the book is bound up with the place where I read it, a coffeehouse in Ann Arbor, where I sat in the back at a large table and became immersed in the book. I remember the coffee smell of the place and the hard wooden table, I remember the cover of the book, and I remember being fascinated by the character of Raskolnikov, but that’s about it. Our memories are so idiosyncratic and sometimes unreliable, though it seems so strange that I would forget pretty much the entire book, whole plot elements and groups of characters.
But recently, in preparation for a book club I’m hoping to start this summer on the classics, I bought a copy of Crime and Punishment (since I work at a library I rarely buy books now, though I wanted to mark up my copy), and I’m starting to wonder, in a weird way, how I read the book, meaning did I just hurry through it? Did I savor the characterizations, the manic and frenzied energy, the strange oscillation between horror and laughter? Why don’t I remember more of it? What did I read? I’m also taken aback by this fact because there is so much to think about and remember about the book, and I wonder how or why I wasn’t as sensitive to this. I wonder that if I were to have been more sensitive to Raskolnikov’s guilt, more empathetic to Marmeladov’s suffering, but also more horrified by Raskolnivkov’s murders and plight, I would have remembered more.
I had an interesting experience as an undergraduate in a creative writing class that I think could shed some light on this conundrum. I had a great teacher, who was very incisive and penetrating in his comments on our stories, and I remember I wrote a story that had to do with the fraternity where I was living then, and the debauched life that came then with living in the fraternity (the drinking, the uncleanliness, etc.). I wrote a story that looked upon this material as comic, and I remember the class seemed to like it and let me know during the workshop that they thought it was funny. But when I met with my creative writing teacher, he said something that made me pause and rethink the whole piece, and in doing so, pretty much rethink my life. And what he said was something along the lines of, “What about the more tragic elements of this lifestyle in the story? Aspects that are not funny but are more sad, even depressing? Have you thought about that?” And I hadn’t! And I came away with a shock from the meeting – I felt suddenly more self-aware, and a bit nauseated by the callow lifestyle I had been leading. It was an about-face, a turn-around, and it left me with a different, better, more humane and human perspective.
When I read Crime and Punishment for the first time I was still living the debauched fraternity life, and it never occurred to me that my life could affect how I perceived the book. But I wonder if I read it somewhat superficially (and again, I wonder – how can you read Dostoevsky superficially? He almost compels your attention, it’s that good), and that I didn’t take in certain elements because that wasn’t where my mind and heart were.
Flash forward more than a decade, and the book is a revelation. It’s terrifying and sad and tragic and funny, all sometimes on one page, and I’m so happy to be reading it. But the truism does hold true – the book hasn’t changed. It’s the same translation, the same words, the same plot, the same characters. But I’ve changed. I’ve grown older, and hopefully less superficial, and I’m taking more of the novel in and appreciating it. Sometimes rereading a book can have that effect on you – it calls attention to where you were at during your first reading, and reflects back to you how far you’ve come. It’s a kind of mirror, where you can look at your old readings and, in a healthy and productive way, question your beliefs and values – it facilitates the process of self-examination. And since, as Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” rereading books is a necessity.