Friday, November 04, 2011

What do we read when we read?

I'm re-reading David Copperfield. I've read it more than once before, but I don't think I've read it since I was a child, and I first read it when I was eight years old. I'm reading the copy my parents gave me for Christmas that year (which is the only copy I've ever had) - we weren't well off, and it's one of those cheap red hardback Regency Classics you used to get from Woolworth's. Even though it was so cheap, it's stood up well - the spine's only a little frayed at the top right-hand corner, and I'm having to get used again to the fact that I don't need to put it face down in order to keep my place, or be careful not to press too hard while it's open in case the pages come apart, and remembering that I never did have to, even when the book was new, since the pages are properly sewn.

It's a strange experience. Firstly, although I'm appreciating the ironic authorial stance towards the child David in a way I couldn't have done as a child myself, or at least don't remember doing, it's all so very familiar, although I read it so long ago, far more familiar to me than many books I first read much more recently and re-read after far fewer years. A good part of the reason for this must be the ubiquitous nature of the story in our culture - all those film versions - but I do wonder too if it's testimony to Dickens' genius, or maybe the power of books over a young impressionable mind. More importantly, though, it's not just the book I'm reading. There's a palimpsest - more than one: as I follow David through the death of his mother and the marriage of Peggotty, there are images in my head too of the bedroom in our rented flat in an old Victorian building where I woke to find the book in my stocking that Christmas morning, and of the blazing coal fire beside which I sat reading it in the winter evenings following. I had my own feelings of loss and longing at that time with which the book chimed, and reading it now, they are brought back to me. Even then, the first time, when I read of David's visit to Yarmouth and the inside of the boathouse, my grandparents' cottage by the sea rose up before me with similar feelings of refuge, and so it does again now, along with that memory of its doing so before. As narrator Copperfield muses that while he recalls his childhood the early image of his mother's face overlays all later memories of her, I am struck by how far the youthful image of my mother's face at the time of that first reading has been with me as I read now. As well as the book, I am reading my own childhood, and not just that: I am reading my own first reading of that book.

I wonder how much of this is invested in the physicality of the book, the fact that I am reading the very same physical copy with its associations of that time and place, and how much is down to the actual text? How much of my own feelings and sensations of that time long ago are permanently imbued for me in the text, so that I can never again come to it 'clean'?

Whenever people have asked me if I've read David Copperfield I've always said yes, but never felt easy about doing so: it feels like part of my psyche - especially my writing psyche - but it's so long since I read it, and I was only a child, surely it can hardly count; surely if I read it again I'd find it a completely different experience from the one I remember?

Not so. But I do also wonder: how different an experience would this book be if I were reading it now for the first time ever - on a Kindle, to boot?
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