Rereading as Rebirth: Young Susan Sontag on Personal Growth, the Pleasures of Revisiting Beloved Books, and Her Rereading List
“Stop! I cannot think this fast! Or rather I cannot grow this fast!”
By Maria Popova
Recently, in writing about astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s answer when asked what books “every intelligent person on the planet should read,” I lamented in a semi-aside the complete lack of female voices among his selections and the general lack of female cultural icons’ public reading lists in our culture, noting that Susan Sontag is arguably the only exception, as her published diaries are essentially one lifelong reading list. But in addition to being perhaps the twentieth century’s most voracious reader, often spending eight to ten hours a day reading by her own estimate, Sontag was also a great advocate and practitioner of another infinitely rewarding yet increasingly lost art: rereading.
“Let me note all the sickening waste of today, that I shall not be easy with myself and compromise my tomorrows,” resolves 15-year-old Sontag in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — that spectacular collection of diary entries, which also gave us young Sontag on art, marriage, the four people a great writer must be, and her duties for being a twenty-something. A week after her indignation at the “sickening waste” of that day, on which she had “pretended to enjoy a Technicolor blood-and-thunder movie,” Sontag — who had a penchant for worthy resolutions — turns to the journals of André Gide for redemption and extols the rewards of rereading.
In an entry from September of 1948, she writes:
I finished reading this at 2:30 a.m. of the same day I acquired it —
I should have read it much more slowly and I must re-read it many times — Gide and I have attained such perfect intellectual communion that I experience the appropriate labor pains for every thought he gives birth to! Thus I do not think: “How marvelously lucid this is!” — but: “Stop! I cannot think this fast! Or rather I cannot grow this fast!”
For, I am not only reading this book, but creating it myself, and this unique and enormous experience has purged my mind of much of the confusion and sterility that has clogged it all these horrible months.
A few months later, she once again waxes rapturous about rereading:
I was very moved by the Goethe, although I think I’m far from understanding it — the [Christopher] Marlowe [play Doctor Faustus] is just about mine though — for I’ve put a good deal of time into it, re-reading it several times, and declaiming many of the passages aloud again and again. Faustus’ final soliloquy I have read aloud a dozen times in the past week. It is incomparable…
Somewhere, in an earlier notebook, I confessed a disappointment with the Mann [Doctor] Faustus … This was a uniquely undisguised evidence of the quality of my critical sensibility! The work is a great and satisfying one, which I’ll have to read many times before I can possess it…
I’m re-reading pieces of things that have always been important to me, and am amazed at my evaluations.
After remarking that she is also rereading Dante “with undiminished pleasure” and T.S. Eliot, “of course,” Sontag adds a note of enthusiastic praise for the virtues of reading out loud:
It is so good to read aloud.
In a testament to one of Italo Calvino’s 14 definitions of a classic — “The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…,’ never ‘I’m reading…'” — here are a few of Sontag’s favorite rereads, as recorded in her journal:
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
- Three Lives: Stories of the Good Anna, Melanctha, and the Gentle Lena by Gertrude Stein
- On the Nature of Things by Lucretius
- The Journals of André Gide
- Faust by Goethe
- The Beast in the Jungle by Henry James
- The Immoralist by André Gide
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
- The Divine Comedy by Dante
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham
- Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad
- Muirhead’s Guide to London by Findlay Muirhead
In addition to her rereading, Reborn offers a magnificent record of Sontag’s voracious reading, as does the second installment of her published diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 — an altogether superb volume brimming with such gems as Sontag on love, sex, and her radical vision for remixing education.
Complement with Andy Miller on the slippery question of what makes a great book, then revisit Sontag on why lists appeal to us.
Published January 5, 2015