Christine Byl: On Re-reading

Christine Byl

Welcome to February featured author Christine Byl, whose new book, Dirt Work, is forthcoming in April. 
Happy February, 49ers. I’ve been visiting this site now for a few years and in light of all the great posts I’ve read in that time, it’s an honor to be a guest here this month. Alaska writers are good company. It’s also cool to follow Jo-Ann Mapson, January’s blogger, who was a professor of mine when I was in UAA’s old resident MFA program. Her posts had the same grounded, funny and warm advice I remember in person (complete with dog love.) So, without further throat clearing (a workshop would have edited this out, eh?), here are some thoughts on re-reading.


Good old Heraclitus said you never step in the same river twice, and perhaps he’d agree that you never read the same book twice, either. This struck me recently when I re-read To Kill A Mockingbird, almost thirty years after I read it for the first time. My middle school reading was memorable–I found it spooky, and pretended I was Scout on summer afternoons playing in the alley–and so was my high school reading, when I reveled in precocious adolescent literary pride: I’ve already read that! Watching the movie in class (on film-strip, do I recall?) was an extra bonus.

My third TKAM reading happened for a very non-literary reason: Value Village. I found a lovely Vintage classics edition, and lured by VV’s buy 4 books and get the 5th free! offer that often seduces me into more books than I need, I bought it for a niece. Like many of the books that I loved as a kid, I viscerally recall the cover of my old copy of TKAM: light purple, mass-market paperback, moody painting on the front. (You have this mental library too, yes? Plain red Catcher, yellowish Little House, Garth Williams’ Charlotte & Stuart Little paintings…). This new edition had a face-front black and white photo of a bowl-cut girl, a strongly lettered title, the Pulitzer’s gold stamp. What’s often thought of as a classic children’s novel was asking for an adult reader’s attention. Once home, I picked it up and paged through.

I meant to skim, quickly revisiting a couple of favorite scenes before wrapping it up for the Christmas box. Turns out I couldn’t find them. Where was the part about Boo Radley bursting from the porch to chase Jem? What about Tom Robinson’s hanging? Didn’t Atticus get beaten up? I started at the beginning and read it before bed over the course of a week, the last few chapters in a page-turning binge usually reserved for Harry Bosch mysteries. Reading partly for nostalgia, I also tried to “read like a writer,” noticing what worked, authorial choices, my reactions, and how they related. (Granted, this is a rough task to focus on at the gates of sleep.) What I found surprised me.

First, the book upended my memory on the literal level. Boo Radley never erupts from the porch to chase Jem and Scout; he actually appears in only one scene in the entire book, though the kids’ fear of him permeates the novel completely. Tom Robinson is indeed sentenced to death, but while Atticus prepares an appeal, Tom meets his end in way that is equally awful for different reasons. And Atticus is never beaten up. He’s threatened twice, and he shoots a gun (at a rabid dog) but is never overtly harmed. Yet the overall atmosphere and tension that imprinted on me at a young age persisted. It turns out that correctly recalling the plot points had little relation to the depth of feeling the book had left in me.

This initial surprise–how the book read so differently than I remembered it–brought on a second insight. Quite aside from whether or not I got the details right, I was reading a different book than I had at ten, when I wished Scout lived in my neighborhood so we could make mischief together, or at sixteen, when Jem’s burgeoning maturity echoed my own unease at the injustice and mayhem the adult world seemed to promise. Reading it in my late-thirties, new assessments emerged. Atticus still seemed a loving parent, but knowing more of the history of civil rights, I noticed a naive enabling that seemed almost cowardly. In Boo Radley, so frightening to me at ten, I could now see glimmers of my own pathologically antisocial shadow self. I still loved Calpurnia, the Finches’ maid and the book’s domestic anchor, but now I saw her as a real, working person whose own needs went mostly unstated. I noticed the town drunk, the sheriff and the judge, and especially Mayella Ewell, the broken woman whose impoverished desperation was the scapegoat in Tom’s (deserved) defense. I had never realized the book was so full of adults.

Re-reading as it pertains to re-writing has been on my mind lately as I am working my way through the first draft of a new novel. Here, a disclosure: it’s my first. I’ve been a short story addict my entire writing life. They were my passion before graduate school, my MFA focus, and remain one of my first picks for reading. Aside from an unexpected non-fiction detour that turned into a book, short fiction has been my constant artistic pull. But about a year ago, I unearthed an old dusty file (can digital files be dusty?) and reread a short story I’d written fifteen years ago, an unruly bugger that had never seemed finished. It had been years since I’d opened it, and poof, I saw: it was a novel. Or, it wanted to be. (I hope I am helping it on its way, but I can’t be sure.) I don’t know what was different about me in this reading to make that fact so apparent, but I know I had never noticed it quite so starkly before. I became obsessed with re-reading old material–did possibilities hide in pieces I’d rendered to the crap folder? What else might I notice with new eyes?

Writing is one of those endeavors, like parenting or a spiritual practice, where what you get out of it rarely immediately correlates with what you put in. You can slave for years over one idea and get nothing. Then, when you least expect it, the nothing turns into something, just not what you thought it would be. This happens–to me, to others I talk to–all the time. The lack of direct causality between effort and success is one of the deep pleasures and the most frustrating burdens of our (un)chosen obsession.

Unmoored from a predictable relationship between input and product, rereading enters as the perfect exercise in non-attachment. Every day, I am a slightly different person, made new (or aged) by a conversation, a bird sighting, a movie. A diagnosis, a gift, a hell of a good meal. And just as I bring this continually evolving self to my daily life, so I bring it to the writing. It’s good to remind myself of this, to revisit old work, “stuck” drafts, and even successful pieces, to invite a new take, whether it be syntax that opens differently, a character into which I have deeper insight, or an epiphany that can be complicated, clarified, honed by experience or imagination. Old work can also be freeing because, cut loose from the exact memory of “what happens” (witness TKAM), I can be surprised by the undertones, the ambiance, and the contradictions to my expectation more obvious from a distance than they were up close, when I was working on the thing every day.

The nuts and bolts of a piece matter, what we focus on when we “remember” a story–plot, setting, characters. But so does what underlies event. We call it subtext, tone, spirit: that nearly-magic residue in a piece of writing that relies heavily on sensory detail and specific imagery, but also somehow transcends it. Such aliveness is spine-tingling, whether we’re reading it in someone else’s book, writing it in a first draft, noticing it later, or revising it into being. No matter how small, that spark is worth pursuing. Like a housebound loner who appears only once in an entire book, it is the practically invisible heart of a story, beating strong enough to call you back in.

Question of the Day: What have you re-read lately and how did it strike you?
Christine Byl is the author of Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods (Beacon Press, 2013). Her prose has appeared in GlimmerTrain Stories, The Sun, Crazyhorse, and other magazines and anthologies. Byl lives in a yurt on a few acres of tundra just north of Healy, Alaska, with her husband and an old sled dog. She runs a small trail-design and construction business. When she isn’t working in the field or writing, she loves reading, homestead projects, wilderness adventures, and anything that happens in the snow. Visit her on Facebook while her website makes its slow way to the world.

Scroll to Top