Rachel Herrmann

Academia, food, and history

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Confessions of a Compulsive Re-reader of Rowling
I recently realized that I defended my dissertation just over a year ago, and that it’s been almost as long since I’ve regularly updated this blog. Part of this neglect has to do with the fact that I’ve been surviving my first year on the non-tenure-track (because it doesn’t exist) here, and I’m still wrangling my teaching and research schedule. The main reason though, has to do with the fact that I’ve been awaiting that magical sense of distance that I’m apparently supposed to get from my dissertation, and I’m not convinced it’s happened, yet.

I’ve been a compulsive re-reader my whole life; although I do take joy in discovering new novels, I frequently read books and series I’ve already finished before starting something I haven’t read. My mother and sister got into Harry Potter a few books before I did, but in the year that Goblet of Fire came out, I read the first three books and the fourth at least twice through. Thereafter, I always read all the extant books in the series before the newest one came out, in addition to going through them all at least once a year. I started and finished Deathly Hallows sprawled on a blanket during a long, long day in Central Park—at the end of which I walked home emotionally exhausted and elated—questionable epilogue notwithstanding. The books came with me to grad school, where I read them all approximately once a year, usually at the height of the semester when I needed something to take my mind off of history.

I was surprised to see the number of academics I follow on Twitter and Facebook who posted the story about J. K. Rowling wanting to rewrite Harry and Hermione’s relationship in the Harry Potter books. Not because I blame people for being as obsessed as I am with the world that Rowling created, but because I hadn’t thought about how deeply the concept of rewriting would resonate. Those books have become canon, and admitting that you’d change the canon if you could is an act that really inspires some strong reactions.

I may be a compulsive re-reader, but I am only a middling rewriter—and herein lays my ambivalence about the dissertation, as well as (I’d guess) academics’ reactions to the Rowling revelation.

Rowling wrote an epic story that got people involved, and deeply invested in, the storylines of the characters she created. To read that she’d like to go back and change a major facet of that story is understandably troubling to the people who read about the dangers of time-turners. I’d imagine it also bothers those who spent a lot of time arguing for and against the way things played out because it will change our re-readings of the novels in the future.*

On a more personal level, though, I think academics may find her confession troubling because we know that once we publish something, it’s irretrievably out there. Sure, you can write a second book or article that admits that you were wrong, though that assumes A) that enough people read and care about the first book, and B) that you’ve got enough steam left to reconsider the topic many months or years down the line. That fear is part of what prevents me from facing the momentous task of rewriting my dissertation. I’m not scared of the editing process, and of having to deal with my tendency to tell the reader what happened rather than why it matters—but I’m worried about the finality of that final product. My book will be no Harry Potter, which is to say that I’d better get it right the first time because there sure as hell isn’t going to be a large audience of shippers waiting to reread it and imagine alternate endings.

So what does one do when faced with the task of revising? For one thing, I read John Irving, who’s a compulsive rewriter. As I’ve written about before, however, Irving’s charm is that he does his rewriting many times within the space of a novel, telling and then retelling his story with different storylines and endings (though he also does it from book to book). I can’t say I’m convinced that this technique would be effective for a history monograph, but it does make me think usefully about the multiple ways in which I could write the history I want to tell.

I’m also trying to reevaluate my work patterns. I had to do something similar when I was reading for comps, and again when I was writing the dissertation. In the first instance I became an early riser, and in the second I became much more inclined to work in the office than at home. This time around it seems I’m marrying the first habit with a newer one; I’m becoming even more of an early riser while also trying to become a morning reader. I’ve started to get up earlier just to read something I know I need to read to think more about how to revise the-thing-that-must-not-be-named. I like to do so sitting on the couch with my toast and tea, with the computer halfway across the room, and my email unopened. We’ll see how those habits change once I’m actively involved in editing.

Harry Potter didn’t have to go it alone in the end, though—and neither do I. I think that perhaps it’s been a mistake to sit so long alone with these apprehensions. I’m going to try to be better in the future.

*In case you are nerdy—ahem, cool—enough to care what I think about Rowling’s admission, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, I really lost a lot of respect for Ron when he abandoned Harry and Hermione in the forest, and remained unconvinced that he deserved Hermione. On the other hand, I still like the idea of a young adult novel where the male and female protagonists don’t fall in love with each other. So.


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