So begins Vivian Gornick’s Unfinished Business, and until I saw this book pop up in my Amazon recommended list, I thought I was alone.
I have taken up re-reading at all times, whether it’s John Updike’s Rabbit four part series, or Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, Marilynne Robinson’s essays, or Alice Munro’s short stories. It feels like going back to the well.
It feels like saying hello to an old friend.
And just like Gornick, I feel as though I have forgotten the details, though the ideas stay with me. Or at least, the ideas are still something I can feel in my hands, though I myself may have moved on from them. How is it that we can carry with us the lesson, whatever that is, when the very foundations, the very fabric of the text, is so different than we remembered?
Interestingly enough, there are some authors who I doubt I will ever re-read due to their style being so intensely theirs. I loved Infinite Jest as a young man graduating from college, but to ever return to that text would make my eyes bleed. I believe very much in what David Foster Wallace did for fiction, but his brain voice is something I inhaled a little too quickly.
The concept of re-reading may start and end here in the realm of text, but it needs to be extrapolated into something higher. For what I see is a desperate commitment to return to what came before, despite the obvious truth that this global pandemic has wrought: there is no going back.
It is the end of the world, in a sense. That who we were and what our lives represented before the pandemic cannot hold an ideological candle to who we are now. The past several months have felt like a lifetime because we have all received a minor in statistical analysis and epidemiology. We’ve all had to accommodate the prospect of being inundated with time, or have become so “essential” that we’re delivering pizzas at a breakneck pace.
Since I have been reading Paradise Lost, I find myself having to face some hard truths about myself. I graduated with a history degree, yet for at least six years I have abandoned many notions that the past can prove anything to the present. I always had this thought in my head: “what would Jesus say about an iPad?” Which meant that new technology somehow invalidated the wisdom of the past. This is of course ridiculous. Just because our technological arm has accelerated quickly, does not mean our brains have. We are still evolutionary speaking roughly the same, though our modern culture thankfully have given us abstract tools to be better people. So I have had to admit that since reading Paradise Lost I needed to accept some facts. Though I am no longer Christian, being involved in church gave me a kind of language to talk about the larger questions that other doctrines still have not quite caught up with. Religion and spirituality are the great foundations for bringing into question concepts of power, love, sex distinctions, roles and motives, and above all a sense of meaning. Milton reminded me of that. The poetry is so moving that I find myself “re-reading” Christianity, and coming to terms with the first 20 years of my life (what Lorrie Moore calls the first half) in a way where I can move forward.
The book has single-handedly brought me back to history, and the fruits that can be reaped.
People need these moments. Whether in re-reading a work of fiction, or in re-reading The Constitution of the United States, we need to take this moment to understand that it is a blip in the American timeline. It is the skip for the record on the player.
We cannot keep doing some of the things we have been doing. In education, we pushed class sizes and budgets to their limits, and had to build elaborate football stadiums to earn revenue, despite what we knew about the medical dangers of the sport.
We’ve built solar panels as a supplement to oil and natural gas, simply because we needed more power, not simply a replacement. This is a dangerous methodology.
We pushed public defenders to the point where they barely knew who they were representing.
In each category of life, it seemed as if we took a system and ran it until it died, and then we found someone else to start it up again.
How did this happen? How did we decide that with more people than ever, and with more productivity machines than before, and with better technology to make sustainable energy than before, that we would still be so hungry? All this wealth and all this surplus and we still have a lack.
When a person re-reads, they admit by the very act that they are willing to redress the thoughts and behaviors of their previous self. And whether you practice this in books or not, it is something that I would recommend to every person. I wish I could go back in a time machine and slap myself at 20. But when I cannot, I can at least hug that young man and quietly remind him what wisdom means.
Re-reading is wisdom.