The issue of re-reading is one that crops up on blogs and in literary articles time and again. Some people are inveterate re-readers, some are horrified by the mere thought and yet others terrified that revisiting a book will destroy the very relationship that made them think it was worth reading a second time in the first place.
While not averse to re-reading, these days I am most likely to pick up a book a second time if it turns up on the list for one or other of my reading groups, which is the position in which I find myself at present. I first read Adhaf Soueif”s novel The Map of Love when it was short-listed for the Booker in 1999 and have regretted ever since that she has been too involved in the political situation within her country to write any more fiction. So, when it was selected for the October meeting of our Monday Group I was only too pleased to dig out my old copy and settle down with it again. However, what this ‘re-reading’ has decisively proved to me is that just as it is never possible to cross the same river twice it is never truly possible to read the same book twice.
The argument that is usually put forward to support this notion is that the reader will inevitably have changed between the two readings and will, therefore, bring a different sensibility and experiential set to play in respect of how they understand the text. And, I’m sure this is true in relation to my response to Soueif’s novel. However, if that is the case then there are two small sub-set of experiences that are taking on by far the greater importance in the change in my interaction with the book.
The first is 9/11. It is impossible to read about the antagonism towards the British on the early twentieth century and the Americans at the end without reflecting on the action such antagonism provoked amongst certain people.
Far more thought provoking, however, is the more recent popular uprising amongst the people of Egypt themselves, an uprising in which Soueif and her family were intimately involved. This afternoon I hit the passage about a third of the way through where the two central modern day female characters are involved in a discussion about what the millennium will bring for the country with a group of politically aware Egyptians one of whom proffers the opinion that nothing will change.
Tell me, when in all of history did the Egyptian people rebel? When? When ‘Urabi spoke up for them, they sold him out. They ran away and let the British in. You’ll say 1919, but 1919 wasn’t a revolution. It was a few demonstrations and it changed nothing –… Fifty-two? That was not a rebellion of the people. It was an army movement which rode the people and told the people that it spoke with their voice. The people have no voice.
You can’t read this without thinking about what happened during the Arab Spring, about the demonstrations in Tahrir Square and about the problems that the movement towards a more populist voice in the country seems to have encountered in the ensuing months. I’m not quite certain how to describe the experience I’m having as I re-encounter Soueif’s novel, but re-reading doesn’t seem anywhere near adequate. I feel as if between them the text and my expanded experiences are creating a whole new level of awareness.