Culture Magazine

Stories Read Many Times Over Change Their Valence

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
In oral cultures the same stories are told time and again. For every individual there will always be a first time to hear any one story, but in time they all become familiar, familiar friends. There are thus no surprises in the hearing, no new “information” thereby conveyed. There is only the stories themselves, and of course, the company of one’s fellows.
Writing in The Guardian, Stephen Marche talking about reading two texts one hundred times, Hamlet and The Inimitable Jeeves.
The experience is distinct from all other kinds of reading. I’m calling it centireading.
I read Hamlet a 100 times because of Anthony Hopkins. He once mentioned, in an interview with Backstage magazine, that he typically reads his scripts over a 100 times, which gives him “a tremendous sense of ease and the power of confidence” over the material. I was writing a good chunk of my doctoral dissertation on Hamlet and I needed all the sense of ease and power of confidence I could muster.
Has he arrived at an experience of those texts that approximates that in oral culture (minus, of course, the presence of one’s fellows)?
After a hundred reads, familiarity with the text verges on memorisation – the sensation of the words passing over the eyes like cud through the fourth stomach of a cow. Centireading belongs to the extreme of reader experience, the ultramarathon of the bookish, but it’s not that uncommon. To a certain type of reader, exposure at the right moment to Anne of Green Gables or Pride and Prejudice or Sherlock Holmes or Dune can almost guarantee centireading. Christmas is devoted to reading books we all know perfectly well. The children want to hear the one story they have heard so many times they don’t need to hear it again.
By the time you read something more than a hundred times, you’ve passed well beyond “knowing how it turns out”. The next sentence is known before the sentence you’re reading is finished. As I reread Hamlet now, I know as Gertrude says, “Why seems it so with thee?” that Hamlet will say “Seems, Madam? Nay it is. I know not seems.” I know as Bertie asks “What are the chances of a cobra biting Harold, Jeeves?” that Jeeves will answer: “Slight, I should imagine, sir. And in such an event, knowing the boy as intimately as I do, my anxiety would be entirely for the snake.” Centireading reveals a pleasure peculiar to text lurking underneath story and language and even understanding. Part of the attraction of centireading is that it provides the physical activity of reading without the mental acuity usually required.

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