I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about aesthetics. He proposed that after you have seen or heard or read a piece, you can never appreciate it and have as strong a reaction to it again. From that moment on, the art's effect on you will change and diminish. You may always like it, but you can never regain your first experience with it.
As I thought about this concept, I related it to literature, for that is the art with which I most identify. In particular, I thought about my experience with the book The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This is one of my favorite books because of the way it has affected me. The first time I read it, I was in high school, in the middle of an identity crisis I had been processing for about five months. I connected very strongly with the main character's lost identity. This loss is so strong, Ellison doesn't even give us this character's name. All I remember from that first reading is following the character's journey from one group of people to another, seeking various ways in which he could form an identity. At the end, he closes himself off in a large underground room with over 1,000 light bulbs. When I finished the book, I fell into heavy contemplation about my own life. I sat outside on the porch swing and analyzed the all the groups and activities in which I was involved that I had been using as my identity markers. I tossed them aside one by one and searched for something unique about me apart from all these exterior things. I grabbed a journal and wrote down everything I could understand about the individual qualities, quirks, needs, habits, and feelings that made me different from everyone else. It was the first time I had been constructive with my identity crisis, moving forward to gain a sense of self rather than despairing over the discovery of my lack of self. Because I connected so strongly with Ellison's character, I could see myself sharing in some degree of his ending if I didn't work through my struggles. It was a powerful book for me, and very instrumental for that period of my life.
However, when I reread the book about three years later, I had an entirely different experience of it. This time, I read it in an academic setting, and I was able to grasp the underlying political and social messages in the novel that I had completely missed in my first reading. I analyzed the significance of little symbols Ellison drops in the story, symbols that I hadn't before noticed. I still thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I didn't feel a strong emotional connection to it this time. I appreciated the craft of the novel and the significance it had in its time period. I researched quite a lot of academic papers discussing the book and saw it in a whole new way.
The Invisible Man is not the only book I've reread, of course, but it certainly gave me the strongest difference in reaction with a second reading. When considering this, I began to wonder if my friend's theory about aesthetics is correct. My first experience with the book can never be recreated, and I doubt I will ever respond so strongly to it again. If I continue to reread it, will that diminish my connection with the book? I am inclined to disagree, asserting that an appreciation for art can only grow stronger over time. But this is more about the initial reaction than an intelligent appreciation. Will the strength of the connection lose force?
First of all, when you reread a book, you will not experience the mystery of how the story will unfold because you've already uncovered it. You know exactly what will happen and how it will end, so that driving force to discover these things will not be behind your reading the second time. You also will not experience the surprise of shocking twists that may be in the plot. Second, you have already formed opinions about the characters, so you may not be questioning them and empathizing with them as strongly. Is something then lost in rereading? Should you leave your book untouched after the first reading in order to hold on to your first connection with it?
I have come to the conclusion that the answer is NO. There are always new things to be learned in great literature. When I read a book multiple times, I am struck by something different every single time. Granted, I may never have the same emotional attachment or curiosity with it, but I nevertheless find more that I love about it. I don't think that the experience of my first reading of The Invisible Man will ever be lost, no matter how many times I read the book again. I can always hold on to that. Great writers put a lot of thought and care into their work, and I don't think we can ever grasp it all the first time we read it. The emotions and the exciting turns of the plot can actually distract us from some of the implicit messages and symbols. Thus, when those things are less affecting, we catch these underlying pieces of the novel. I fully support and encourage everyone to reread their favorite books over and over. I know I will.