On the Re-Reading Life and Vivian Gornick’s ‘Unfinished Business’

Looking over my reading list this past year I saw stellar book after stellar book. Bam, bam, bam, nearly all excellent reads. And then I got to the past few weeks and realized that things lately have been merely fine—good but not great, decent but not deepening. And then I picked up Vivian Gornick’s Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader and by page four thought, “Hello, friend.” It was like meeting someone at a party and immediately sensing a kindred spirit.

In this slim collection of essays, Gornick describes how in re-reading certain books she discovers new layers and perspectives within them, insights hiding in plain sight all along. Of course, Gornick recognizes that the transformation within her re-reads reflects maturations and new outlooks within herself. But she uncovers new realizations about the authors as well, their project, genius, and limitations.

As a child, I re-read probably more than I read. I consistently returned to the volumes in my own collection, no doubt more beloved because of their diminutive numbers. I thumbed those pages and cracked those spines even more than I played with toys or scrambled trees. The Anne of Green Gables series. A Wrinkle in Time and its kin. The Chronicles of Narnia. But my re-reading extended to items checked out from the library too, as I frequently returned again and again to favorites I did not own. The Prydain Chronicles. Hitty, Her First Hundred Years. No Flying in the House. Most of these books lose at least some luster with adult, 2020 eyes and yet they feel stamped on my soul as well.

I’ve known people who re-read a specific work each year. For my Mom (and many others), the yearly re-read is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. One of my college professors claimed to read T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets each fall, a work she declared superior to The Wasteland. In this re-reading people seek something familiar yet essential that they have come to rely on.

I don’t have a standing re-read but there are books I return to again and again. As an undergraduate English major I took the required “Intro to Literary Theory” course. The textbook for the class used The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to demonstrate multiple interpretive lenses from Freudian to Marxist to Queer to Deconstruction. (It was the ’90s). Our teacher assured us that “Gatsby” would morph and change over time and, indeed, she was right. Even as I find many of the characters more and more intolerable I’m still drawn to experience the train wreck of ridiculously bad choices.

I frequently return to Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, my favorite book of hers, a novel that peers into a deep well of unreconcilable grief. I also dip into Jane Austen’s Persuasion every year or two. For a long time, my favorite Austen was Sense and Sensibility, the first Austen book I read, elevated by the excellent film adaptation by director Ang Lee and screenwriter Emma Thompson. But then I realized, as all must, that Pride and Prejudice brings more scathing insight into human behavior and is, quite simply, way funnier than Sense and Sensibility. I only read Persuasion for my PhD exams (which required Persuasion, as the powers-that-be presumably presumed that many of us would have already read S&S and P&P).

This studying forced me to engage with Persuasion more deeply than I might otherwise have done. And over the years I found it quietly replacing first S&S and then even P&P in my estimation, but also my heart. Persuasion is Austen’s last novel and Anne Elliot her most mature heroine. Like her Austen-derived counterparts, Anne finds herself buffeted by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But unlike Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, or Fanny Price, Anne has also made decisions herself that constrain her life and prevent her from achieving fulfillment, making for a more interesting protagonist.

Austen in August - Review: Persuasion, Jane Austen - Girl with her ...

And yet. When I engage Persuasion more recently I do see the holes. How can Lady Russell be so aware of Anne’s ill treatment by her vain, silly father and eldest sister and yet still be pinned by respect for the nobility? And Anne really is a bit too saintly, at least until the end when she decides to seize her own happiness. And like Gornick, this deep knowledge of Persuasion reveals to me the limitations of Austen as a writer. Which, no shade to Jane Austen, a genius light years ahead of her time, regardless of gender, and yet bracketed by the literature that came before and her inability to know what would come after.

In the end, Gornick’s Unfinished Business (and what a remarkable title for an ode to the re-reading life!) deals with the joy so many of us experience through reading generally, and the unique deepening of re-reading specifically. She writes: “The companionateness of those books! Of all books. Nothing can match it. It’s the longing for coherence inscribed in the work—that extraordinary attempt at shaping the inchoate through words—it brings peace and excitement, comfort and consolation. But above all, it’s the sheer relief from the chaos in the head that reading delivers. Sometimes I think it alone provides me with courage for life, and has from earliest childhood.” “Hello, friend,” indeed.

I would love to hear what books you have found yourself returning to!

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