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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Quality of Unexpectedness


Songbird has been panting at the foot of the bookcase for three years. It was three years ago that I, in my agoraphobic longing to burrow into my books and couch cushions with muffin and coffee, decided to test young ears on Jane Austen’s humor. It was only because we had read aloud every appropriate book in all those shelves and it was too hot to go to the library. It was a brief experiment, chiefly in my ability to explain every blasted sentence. It ended in relief on the part of Gale Force and tears on the part of Songbird, who understood nothing, but already knew enough to wish to.

This year, to her hand-clapping delight, I tried it again. We are halfway through, and I have had to explain one or two things. There have been one or two moments of delicious snark that failed to elicit a laugh, and I could be tempted to think I jumped the gun.

Here why it’s not too soon.

1. She is delighted. She wants to hear another chapter, and another. She giggles at 75 % of the humorous parts. She comments astutely on the most ridiculous characters. If she is hanging in and having fun, she is picking up enough to benefit. Marinating in beautiful and witty language is always beneficial. Delighting, even 75%, in story is the foundation of a lifelong love affair with books.  


 2. She is asking good questions. “What did that mean?” after every sentence and paragraph tells you the writing is too advanced. “What is an entail?” tells you it’s mostly sinking in. “You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity,” says Mortimer Adler, but he is not speaking primarily of literature. My biggest worry was that I would divulge the plot twists before her mind was ready for the beauty. I made Geronimo sit out the last four Harry Potter books last year because I knew she was missing most of the plot but was sure she would remember who died. That is all spoiler and no benefit. But as long as the questions indicate general understanding (and enjoyment) you can’t really spoil anything. Because….

3. First reads are all about getting over the plot hurdles. The magic of the best books actually happens in the subsequent reads, when the pages have softened and the corners bent. This time through, Songbird doesn’t yet know what happens. She is falling in love with the style and wit, learning to sit taller and prick her ears because she doesn’t want to miss the subtleties. But she will inevitably miss a great many because she is trying to follow the action.

But next time! Next time, she will curl up with it in her bed, and she will already know what happens. The magic begins to work when you are free to dwell in the moments between the action. Your eyes won’t fly to the next piece of a puzzle, but will linger over hints and phrases and skillful wordplay that you missed that first, anxious time.

Anything worth reading is worth reading again. If you found out whodunnit and have no need to pick it up again, it might have been entertaining, but it probably had no soul-molding value. Let’s just let C.S. Lewis say it better and have done.



“An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. . .It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us… We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” (On Stories)