The Power of Re-Reading

As the end of the school year approaches, I typically look forward to having more free time, and, after two busy semesters, look forward to reading things of my own choosing. While I enjoy reading student papers and perusing research materials, there is something refreshing about reading things I choose to read. I may pick up a new book, but I often find myself turning to something I have read before, an old favorite text I want to read yet again. I do this, I think, because of the comfort of reading something I have read and enjoyed before, such as classic mysteries by Arthur Conan Doyle, John Mortimer, or Agatha Christie, or popular works like the Harry Potter books. I know how they turn out, and somehow knowing they will resolve most of their plot threads and not leave me hanging (and thinking) satisfies me, perhaps because so much of life doesn’t lend itself to such immediate or neat resolution. The experience of re-reading these texts brings me a sense of pleasure and fulfillment so central to pleasure reading.

But there are many other texts I find myself rereading on a regular basis because I teach them each year. The texts are familiar, but the experience of working my way through them changes as new groups of students read them and discover and then share in class the insights they have uncovered. While some observations come up time and again, each year new ideas enter into the conversations of learning we have, and each class responds with fresh energy and newfound enthusiasm for texts that are new to them, though familiar to me. I find myself energized by the ideas they broach and the epiphanies they experience. From time to time I have moments of discovery myself as I happen upon a previously unnoticed truth or insight. Then the reading (and teaching) experience becomes transformative for me as well as the students.

One text I teach in my modern Chinese literature in Chinese course each fall is a short story by Lu Xun (1881-1936), the pioneer writer of modern vernacular fiction. Entitled “Kong Yiji,” the story focuses on the life of a traditional intellectual, the eponymous Kong, as in Kong Fuzi or Confucius, who struggled to survive in an era of modernization and change in China. Kong failed to pass any of the civil service examinations, and thus failed to qualify for even the lowest government post or a private teaching position. A good calligrapher, Kong is reduced to work copying books and documents for wealthy gentry families. Unfortunately Kong is lazy, fails to complete his work assignments, and has a penchant for wandering off with the books, brushes, ink, and paper that his employers have provided to him to complete his various jobs. When found, Kong is often beaten, and as the story closes, after a particularly severe thrashing, we find him unable to use his legs and forced to scoot along the ground on a reed matt.

I first read Lu Xun’s story in a second-year Chinese language class at the University of California at Berkeley. A newly-returned missionary fleeing a failed freshman year as a chemistry major, I enrolled in the class when I took refuge in Berkeley’s temporary home for the undecided student, the “undeclared” major. Not knowing what I wanted to study, much less do for the rest of my life, I knew I wanted to retain, but also to develop my Chinese language skills, and I opted to enroll in a class that would help me build on my then-meager reading and writing ability in Chinese. As the school year ended, our teacher informed us that we would have a chance to read some original works of modern Chinese literature including a short story, Lu Xun’s “Kong Yiji.” I remember how exciting it was to read something real—not a simplified, adapted, or specially-written text for a second language learner of Chinese, but something written by and for Chinese people. In fairness the task was not easy, and I’m not sure how much I really understood after that first reading, but I remember how linguistically “grown up” I felt as I worked through the text. I recall how satisfying it was to realize I could read well enough to make some sense of the story, and to feel that, perhaps I might actually one day learn to read Chinese. The following year in advanced Chinese, our professors used compiled readers filled with modern and contemporary fiction, poetry, essays, and newspaper articles. In those days there were few if any Chinese textbooks at the advanced level, so most classes used readers compiled by course instructors. Since my professors, Cyril Birch and H. Samuel Cheung taught literature, they opted to choose literary texts for course materials. So as I continued my Chinese studies, I came into contact with masterpieces of Chinese literature that would shape not only the course of study I would pursue, but my career as well.

As I first read “Kong Yiji,” I sensed the plight of the protagonist, a man who had not excelled in the traditional educational system and fared poorly in a world into which he did not fit, lacking the credentials of a scholar or the strength, stamina, and work ethic of a peasant. A person of only minimal significance, he became the butt of jokes and a source of entertainment and spectacle for his fellow villagers. Only the young narrator, a surrogate for the author himself, seems to show any interest or concern. The author describes with sensitivity and empathy Kong Yiji’s final disabled state, as he crawls around the village no longer able to walk following a final and most severe beating when he is caught stealing from a local gentryman who, unlike Kong, had passed two of the three major civil service examinations and earned a place of respect in his community. As the story concludes, Kong crawls out of the wine shop in which the story is set one last time, never to be seen again. Lu never tells us that Kong has died; instead, he allows the reader to draw her own conclusions. Having taught this work each fall for the past fifteen years, and again in translation during winter semesters from time to time, I now recognize the consummate skill with which Lu has crafted this story in a way that allows us to see Kong’s flaws and recognize how out of place he is in a China on the eve of modernization, yet also to view the protagonist with compassion and a measure of dignity rather than disgust or derision. Kong may be a victim of his own actions, but he is also a victim of circumstances beyond his control. The ability to find compassion for someone even while recognizing their culpability for their actions is a lesson that I have gained from reading and re-reading—with my students—this masterwork of Chinese fiction.

I have been moved even more profoundly by a short essay by a contemporary of Lu Xun’s, Zhu Ziqing (1898-1948), entitled “The Image of his Back.” I first read this work in English in a Chinese culture class in the Missionary Training Center many years ago. The essay was included in the Chinese culture textbook we used, and I remember the tremendous impact it had on me. Zhu writes of a memory of an encounter he had with his father as Zhu, then twenty, was about to embark on a train journey from Nanjing to Beijing to return to school. Zhu’s father, who was then unemployed and had just finished taking care of his own mother’s funeral and settling her estate, helps his son organize his luggage, get settled on the train, and then fearing his son will have nothing to eat during the journey, goes off to buy some oranges. These acts of fatherly concern demonstrate the tendency in Chinese culture to show affection through acts of kindness rather than through verbal or physical expressions of love for family members. Zhu reveals in ”The Image of his Back” the tremendous effort that his father must give to get the oranges. An older, overweight man, he must clamber down off of one train platform, cross over several sets of tracks, and then climb up on to another platform in a long Chinese gown. This requires significant physical exertion for Zhu’s father, who is described as flushed, sweating, and out of breath after the ordeal. While Zhu could have bought the oranges himself much more easily, it is this act of concern by a caring, loving father that makes the essay so memorable and that Zhu captures most vividly.

I have reread and retaught this essay from time to time in the fall, with a new group of students moved by Zhu’s experience every time I introduce it. But what made it most memorable for me was when a moment of my own life just recently imitated art, and Zhu’s story helped me see a simple act of kindness for the significance it held. A few weeks ago I returned to Berkeley to visit my parents, who are now in their later eighties. As the visit ended and I prepared to return to Utah, I wondered how I would get to the subway and from there to the airport to catch my early morning flight. To my surprise, my father volunteered to get up at 5:30 am to drive me to the nearest subway station. My father never gets up early; he prefers to sleep in, rarely rising before 10 am. When my alarm went off at 5:30, I expected to find my father still in bed and in need of rousting. I arose, put on a robe, and stumbled half-awake to my parents’ room. As I knocked on the door and then entered, I was surprised to find my father sitting on the edge of his bed fully dressed, his profile outlined by the soft glow of the light from his closet, the lights kept low so as not to awaken my mother. He greeted me and urged me to join him in the kitchen for breakfast. He had made a point the previous day of stopping by his once-favorite donut shop to buy some apple fritters for us to enjoy before we left for the airport, though he hadn’t eaten many donuts in the thirty years since he had retired from work. While we ate, we talked as we are seldom able to do, since we live so far from each other, and because my father does not like to talk on the phone much. As I reflect on this recent memory, I see in my father’s insistence in buying the donuts, his early rising, his taking the time to help me load the luggage into the car and to offer some fatherly advice along the way the love he had for me—the same sort of deep affection a father a hundred years earlier and thousands of miles away had shown his son through his attentive care before another journey and the purchase of a bag of oranges.

The power of rereading is perhaps no better exemplified than in the most important sort of reading we do: studying scriptural texts. Since completing reading the Book of Mormon for the first time as a newly-called missionary in the Missionary Training Center, I have read through this text so central to our faith more times than I can count. Yet with each rereading, I learn something new—something timely, critical at the point where I am in my life. This is not because the text is somehow different, but because I am different—I have changed and am at a new point in my life and in need of wisdom and inspiration suited to my present circumstances. The power of the Book of Mormon and the other standard works is that they offer a wealth of spiritual truths and timely teachings tailored for each of us as readers where we are in the journey of life. I have rediscovered this over the past five years as my son and I have read the scriptures aloud together each evening before bedtime. Because Kendon has asthma and takes medications for it each night, we began just after his eleventh birthday to read the scriptures and have prayers together each evening as he takes his inhalers. At Kendon’s request we have read aloud the sacrament prayers first, and then after each of us says a prayer, we read a chapter or two from the standard works. We’ve read through most of them twice, and much of the Old Testament once, and the Book of Mormon three or four times. Kendon feels the Holy Ghost when we read together, he feels good, and so do I. We each learn something new, something timely, something inspiring, and that is as it should be. Whether reading for pleasure after the end of a busy school year, for classes, or for spiritual sustenance and growth, the power of re-reading inspires, uplifts, and instructs us as it enriches our lives.

This post was written by Steve Riep, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow.

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