Sometimes people ask me if I ever grow tired of re-reading the same books each year for English class. My response is usually that I wish I could re-read more books. Right now I’m re-reading Light in August for the fifth time, and it is like a completely new experience. I know Heraclitus said we can never step into the same river twice (and that quote has been attributed to plenty of others) and I find this to be really true with good literature.
Faulkner is a tough read, but sometimes I think the challenge is why I love to teach it. I think Light in August is a little easier to read than The Sound and the Fury, because while the perspective changes, the narrator seems to stay the same (although the free, indirect discourse is a little confounding sometimes). This book tells the story of Lena, pregnant girl looking for the father of her child; of Joe, a man seeking his identity in a racially charged time; of Hightower, a defrocked priest who refuses to leave a town that doesn’t want him; and Byron, a hopeless romantic who wants to make everything better. It also offers a scathing criticism of racism, sexism, and ignorance. I find the ending hopeful, even with all the darkness the book contains.
This year with Light in August, I am reading it with a completely different vision, because I visited Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home, in Oxford Mississippi this summer. Now, as I read about Lena walking up the hill into town, I can picture the actual landscape. As I see Hightower watching the town from his window, I can picture the run-down bungalow off the main street. As the crowds form around Joe Christmas after he’s caught, I can picture the town square. I feel like I can even see Mrs. Hines and her plumed hat bobbing up and down as she parts the masses and peers into Joe’s face.
Because I read this along with students when I re-read, I also have the pleasure of hearing their interpretations of what the book means–in context of their lives. It is so interesting to see how students connect to characters, dislike characters, and make meaning of the reading. I think there’s a lot to be said for re-reading a book, especially one with so many layers like Light in August.
In the comments section, feel free to share a book you love re-reading every year, or a book where you can really picture the setting (stay tuned for next week, when I review Chris Bohjalian’s newest book Close Eyes, Hold Hands, set in Burlington, VT, where I once lived).