So many dead
writers I wish I could
have been – Shakespeare
of course, and Dickens of course,
Keats, Austen, Wodehouse,
Conan Doyle, Powell, Eliot, Eliot,
Grossmith (both), Proust (I guess),
Carroll, Orwell and
Pratchett – except
and it is a big except,
they are all dead
and me, I’d
rather be alive
When I first read “From here to Eternity” I was devastated, wanted to read it again and discover that the ending had magically changed and that Prewitt lived. It just needed me to wish hard enough. A number of other books the same. But sadly, as I knew, really, the book is unchanging, fixed. But gradually I came to realise I was wrong – the novel is flexible, changeable.
You can never read the same book twice. You age, experience, change, gain wisdom, experience disappointment, loss, triumph, achievement, so that, though it is the same book you pick up again, much later, your reading of it will be quite changed. And its context will be changed, the world around it has moved on, and we read it in the context of that world, read Dickens, for example, partly as historical documents, while to his contemporaries he was up-to-the-moment modern, reflecting the world he shared with those readers. Finally, even if we avoid those traps by finishing the last page and immediately turning back to page one to start reading again, we can’t avoid the problem that this time we are reading with the knowledge of the plot, with the knowledge of how it ends, and so cannot avoid reading in a different way.
This characteristic of books is also true of other creative works – music, artworks, drama – although the complexity and extent of a novel means that the experiences are unique, like a fingerprint, whereas one’s reaction to, say, a painting may not vary all that much.