everything passes & rereading

The first thing one notices about Gabriel Josipovici’s Everything Passes is how slight it appears: the economics of American publishing dictate that novels of less than two hundred pages are rarely found in bookstores. The spareness of Everything Passes goes beyond length: white space threatens to overpower the text from every side of every page. A book without many words is a book that can be read quickly: an average commute to work on the subway is long enough to read every word, sentence, paragraph in the book. The commute home lets you read it again. This is how I read Everything Passes for the first times: on my way to work, on my way back from work, over and over for a week or so. I came to the book in a moment of personal conflict; losing myself in the repetitions of the text was calming.

At the start of S/Z, Roland Barthes threatens that “those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere” (p. 16). Well past the heyday of structuralism, this is a statement that still puts fear in the hearts of the would-be reader: very little reading is rereading, especially in the present era, when the volume of things that could be read seems to be approaching the infinite, despite continuing rumors of publishing’s imminent collapse. Of necessity more and more of my online reading is skimming. And even when a book is read entire in print, most don’t suggest – or aren’t worth – rereading. But Barthes can’t be brushed aside: the best reading is close reading, and close reading requires rereading. To read quickly is to admit that what you’re reading isn’t worth your time.

Everything Passes is a book that’s not shy in its demand for rereading. The book’s insistent repetition signals this from the first page, where four sentences are repeated; the word “again” figures prominently. A phrase encountered for the second time, a third or fourth time, resonates. Returning to the start of the book, the reader feels the first use of a phrase resonate, knowing what will happen. (One can’t help but think of how we listen to music: it’s rare to hear a piece of music only once.) It’s in this recognition of repetition and wondering at its meaning that the serious work of reading can be done.

On a basic level with Everything Passes, there’s the immediate problem of figuring out what’s going on: assigning names to the pronouns that represent the characters and sequencing scenes that reveal themselves as flashbacks. This isn’t hard to do, but it does require scrambling on the part of the reader; Everything Passes might be termed “difficult” because of this, but I think this is an important aspect of the book’s realism. Dialogue in the real world isn’t uttered in expository fashion; no omniscient narrator guides us when we make sense of the world.

On another level, the characters grapple with the problem of rereading. Felix points to the modernity of Rabelais, whom he identifies as the first writer of the age of print. Rabelais realized that a book was not a sermon or a play – something heard & observed once – but something else entirely and subject to its own rules: in other words, it’s something that could be reread. Prose fiction, unlike drama or the sermon, is outside of the passing of time inherent in the title: after three hours, the play is over and the audience goes home, but the book persists, waiting to be reopened.

We learn to read by reading the same things again and again. And with age, Sven Birkerts suggests in Reading Life, rereading gains personal resonance: a book first read ten years may physically be the same book, but more likely than not the reader is not the same reader. A book immediately reread is a different sort of experience: the structure of the book reveals itself more openly. Everything Passes shares a circular structure with Finnegans Wake: in both, the tense of the verb in the title suggests an ongoing present. Life must end, but a book goes on and on; caught between fiction and life, the place of the reader can only be to reread.

(This piece was written for Ready Steady Book’s Everything Passes symposium.)