The movies are over, J.K. Rowling has moved on to adult fiction, and yet here I am, lying curled between the couch and the heater, pinching the fat inner spine of The Goblet of Fire between my thumb and forefinger. This is my fifth time. As a teenager, I used to read by closet-light, flipping back to the first chapter immediately after finishing the last, as if expecting something new to happen. Only in Harry’s world could such an enchanted book exist …
“One cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” -Vladimir Nabokov
There is something akin to magic in reading a novel for the first time: the first brush with a new world of characters and creatures is thrilling to imagine; each turn of the page lures us deeper into the mystery of the dream; and, by the end, we arrive at a catharsis of completion and knowing.
Once the mystery is solved, however, the story does not lose its power. In rereading, one can explore the text for hidden delights tucked into each book, free from the burden of mystery and with a keener eye for dramatic irony. Throughout the series, nods and winks to future happenings and cross-textual connections shape the rest of Rowling’s ever-expanding, ever-darkening fantasy world. With a world so vast, it’s difficult to catch it all in one take.
But as I read again (and again), the text became much more than a story: it became a landmark for my memories. I could remember the feeling of reading the first book for the first time, but I couldn’t remember any specific details, like where I was or what else was on my mind. For those of us who grew up with Harry, rereading The Sorcerer’s Stone transports us back to 1997 — before the rise of the Internet and eBooks, 9/11, the War on Terror, the Arab Spring. But now, fifteen years later, my memory of the first book returns me to a fishing trip on a remote lake in the Canadian wilderness — the last time I reread it.
The brain creates memories much like a writer creates scenes with a pen and notebook: for a brief time before the ink dries, it’s possible to smudge what’s been written, but after the memory is constructed, it changes very little (memories generally fade as time passes between recollections). However, when one recalls a memory — a complex process of communication involving connections between specific regions of the mind — the brain begins a new draft of the scene: a memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. As one learns and grows, the synapses in the brain multiply and reinforce each other, broadening our contextual and emotional landscape, until we reach a certain age at which point the synapses begin to falter, and our memories become more elusive.
Neuroscientific research shows that the brain responds to depictions of smells, textures, and movements without making a distinction between literature and reality; arguments and agreements among characters feel like real-life social interactions to the reader. Scientists also discovered recently that narratives activate many parts of our brains at once, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender”, “cinnamon” and “soap”, for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells. Fiction–full of detail and imaginative metaphor–offers an especially rich replica. Novels even go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. This helpful blurring of reality can help us feel as though we belong in the world, and “belonging” to fictional communities actually provides the same mood and life satisfaction people get from affiliations with real-life groups. Books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself, while reading in solitude and silence.
Those whose memories are not readily accessible, such as people with dementia or Alzheimer’s, can still enjoy the mental benefits of literature. Caregivers may be surprised to learn that reading ability is not always destroyed by Alzheimer’s: “All of my research demonstrates that people who were literate maintain their ability to read until the end stages of dementia,” says Michelle S. Bourgeois, a professor of speech and hearing science at Ohio State University.
But for those who can no longer read, storytelling can be therapeutic, giving them a voice they forgot they had. TimeSlips — a program where people with memory loss are shown photos and told not to try to remember anything, but to make up a spontaneous story about what they see — inspires people to use their imagination to communicate again. “People with dementia start to forget their social role; they might not remember they’re a spouse … a parent,” says Anne Basting, founder of the program. “They need a social role through which they can express who they are, and the role of storyteller really supplies that.” Follow-up
studies have shown that storytelling made people more engaged, alert, happy, and communicative. Storytelling is indeed one of the most ancient forms of communication, but only recently have we been able to determine why it has lasted through the ages.
I, like myriad others my age, fell in love with reading because of Harry Potter. As I waited impatiently for the fifth, sixth, and seventh books to come out, I forayed into several works by Stephen King and George Orwell. After reading The Deathly Hallows only once, I took an English class where I read Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and T.S. Eliot. I graduated and moved to Chicago to study fiction writing. I read Melville, Chekhov, Flaubert, Kafka, Camus, Hemingway, Nabokov, Selby, Miller, Vollman, Saunders, and on and on. After this intense period of studying masterpieces (and attempting to write my own), I thought returning to Harry Potter would feel wasteful and nostalgic in light of the hundreds of other brilliant novels waiting to be read. But one of the masters answered me:
“What a scholar one might be if one knew well only five or six books.” -Gustave Flaubert
This time, as I settled into Rowling’s clear, astonishingly consistent voice (I imagine her reading to a small group of children), I could see each scene more vividly from a clear point of view; I felt a heightened awareness of gestures, faces, and spatial relationships; I could clearly identify with each characters’ longings, frustrations, and hidden motives — scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, but rereading provides even deeper self-reflection and affirmation. In rereading such an epic coming-of-age achievement years later, it became real to me that I really had grown up with Harry: he had completely changed the direction of my life.
And when I clutch the threadbare spine of The Sorcerer’s Stone again someday, I will appreciate it even more — a fresh excavation of my memories. Rereading a book is really like riding a roller coaster: the twists and turns never change, but you’re free to try and take a different silly photo of yourself each time.