“If reading is about a relationship with a text, then my subsequent readings represented different relationships. As I changed, the book changed. I was a different person reading a different book. I am not even sure it is accurate to call this rereading.”
was once camped out on an island off the coast of Belize for several months. This was over 30 years ago and before many such islands were bought up and developed, mostly by foreigners. The approximately five-acre island was about 20 miles offshore and was primarily used as an offshore fishing camp. There was no electricity or running water.
I spent most of my mornings free diving and spearing fish, which I would clean and eventually cook for supper. Often, I would paint studies of the fish as soon as I could, while their colors were still vibrant. I even developed my own way of making crude studies and notations of underwater life. The more I dove, the better a spearfisherman I became. And the more I studied and sketched the underwater world, the less bewildering it seemed. This was my routine, sometimes for weeks on end.
I had only one book with me on the island, and it was Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness. I would read it only at night, by candlelight, and often only a few pages at a time. Upon finishing the book, I began all over again the next night. And, upon finishing it a second time, I began reading it again for a third time.
As I reflect on Erich J. Prince’s June 16th Merion West essay “Should You Read the Same Book Twice?” I recall that before I finished my first reading of Heart of Darkness, I knew I would reread the book because, during the course of reading, I sensed myself undergoing a sort of transformation: I was not the same person at the end of the book that I was at the beginning. If reading is about a relationship with a text, then my subsequent readings represented different relationships. As I changed, the book changed. I was a different person reading a different book. I am not even sure it is accurate to call this rereading.
Heart of Darkness is a compelling story. Conrad himself captained a boat up the Congo River. As such, the imagery in Heart of Darkness is vivid and believable. However, Conrad’s tale is more than an adventure into an unmapped world. It is more than a story about the corruption and fragility of empires. Rereading—not reading—for me was the journey itself. Each return to the novella represented a push farther up the river, farther into the heart of darkness, farther into my own heart of darkness. For me, there was little or no journey with one reading.
As I get older, I find myself doing more and more rereading. And I am consistently amazed to discover how many books I thought I had read only to find that I had not read them at all.
Chris Augusta is an artist living in Maine. He has contributed several essays to Merion West in the past.