Deja Reading

Recently, while reading two short story collections — Jim Shepard’s "Like You’d Understand, Anyways" and Tobias Wolff’s "Our Story Begins," — I got the distinct feeling of deja reading. You know, when you come across something and in the first few paragraphs it seems familiar, as if you’ve read it in another life. When it really is deja reading, and you actually haven’t read it before, that’s a very bad sign for a book. It’s pretty much a stamp of unoriginality. That, or you have some serious deja vu issues. But these were false deja-reading feelings — I actually had read these stories a few years back when they were originally published in Harper’s, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.

Shepard’s story "Trample the Weak, Hurdle the Dead," one of the best short stories ever about football, and Wolff’s story "The Deposition," about a lawyer who trails a young girl, both were good on the first read, but on the second one they were so much richer. I think it might be a characteristic peculiar to short stories that they compress so much into a tight space that re-reading is required. Not many novels, barring perhaps classics, reward re-reading with that high of a dividend. If anything, I winced at the hits and laughed at the jokes in "Trample the Weak" even harder than the first time around (there’s one joke in which a member of the opposing team says, "You don’t tackle very well," so two characters knock him out, and when he regains consciousness, they counter: "You don’t stay conscious very well.") Especially with "The Deposition," what I glossed over in the first reading — a lengthy description of a small dying town, seen through the eyes of a stranger on a stroll — became a portrait of a place with metaphorical connotations for the rest of the country and for the character.

The best feeling for me, though, isn’t deja reading, but jamais reading. Jamais vu is the opposite of deja vu: In deja vu, things seem familiar even though they haven’t happened before, while in jamais vu, things seem utterly foreign even though they are extremely familiar. This has happened to me before with my own work: I once wrote a short story, forgot about it for five years, and then happened upon it and re-read it, not even remembering how it ended. It was as if I’d never written or read it. And it was brilliant. The ending surprised and delighted me. There is nothing better than being surprised by a story that you’ve written — I mean, I’ve had plenty of stories that had absolutely sucked when I re-read them a few years later, so it was very nice (and abnormal) to find something that worked.

I’ve also experienced jamais reading with classics. Once I had the feeling of stumbling over Dostoevsky’s "Crime and Punishment" as if I’d never read it before. It was strange — as if one of my best friends had suddenly transformed into a stranger, the contours of their face unfamiliar, even their name absent from my memory. It was so beautiful to read it as though it were the first time, though. Of course I started to remember as I progressed, but that sense of estrangement felt like an invitation to recapture something so valuable — a first read. It feels like it’s necessary for the writer to cultivate jamais vu, especially poets. To be able to view the familiar with absolute new eyes. I think that’s what people read for, and that’s what I write for: to discover the new, whether it appears to be familiar or not.   

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