Lately, a viral Tweet has been making the rounds on social media. The overwhelming number of people who agree with or relate to this Tweet is not exactly astounding—at least not for me. It seems to be a byproduct of the human need for stories, the human desire to find comfort in stories.
The Tweet goes like so:
We can easily extrapolate from TV shows and movies to books. I can’t tell you how many times I have read R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye (2012), and Hiro Arikawa’s Traveling Cat Chronicles (translated by Philip Gabriel), among plenty of others. These stories bring me comfort, not just because I know how they end, but because each time I read, I find something new to love about the story and the characters, and even the author.
There’s something comforting about knowing what’s going to happen. Rather than being on the edge of your seat, shoulders vibrating with tension as you flip through the pages—or swipe left, or listen to the creaking voice of an audiobook narrator who’s been reading aloud for hours—you can lounge back in your chair or on your bed, searching for that fabled perfect reading position, content in your foreknowledge. It’s like omniscience, in a way.
Whoever said that ignorance is bliss hasn’t read a book in their life.
But we can’t ignore the fact that the entertainment we consume also serve as learning tools, teaching and reinforcing certain ideologies, which in turn comforts our sensibilities and how we perceive the world around us.
In that regard, it’s best to share an excerpt from an essay entitled “Narrative” by J. Hillis Miller, with the most salient bits in bold purple:
Why do we need the “same” story over and over? The answers to this question are more related to the affirmative, culture-making function of narrative than to its critical or subversive function. If we need narratives in order to give sense to our world, the shape of that sense is a fundamental carrier of the sense. Children know this when they insist on having familiar stories recited to them in exactly the same forms, not a word changed. If we need stories to make sense of our experience, we need the same stories over and over to reinforce that sense making. Such repetition perhaps reassures by the reencounter with the form that the narrative gives to life. Or perhaps the repetition of a rhythmic pattern is intrinsically pleasurable, whatever that pattern is. The repetitions within the pattern are pleasurable in themselves, and they give pleasure when they are repeated.
The quotation marks around the word “same” indicate another meaning for the sameness of the same story. If we, like children, want the same story over and over in exactly the same form, as though it were a magical charm that would lose its efficacy if a word were changed, we also need the same story over and over in another sense. We want repetition in the form of many stories that are recognizably variations on the same formula. If children want nursery rhymes and bedtime stories over and over in exact word-for-word order, they quickly learn even before the age of five or six the rules for proper storytelling. They learn the conventions of formulaic beginning and ending, “Once upon a time” and “They lived happily ever after.” They learn the conformity to norm of a story that “works.” Many kinds of narrative are demonstrably variations on a conventional form or formula: Greek tragedies, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, traditional ballads, Sherlock Holmes stories, James Bond novels, limericks, even such large genres as “the Victorian novel” or, within that, the forty-four novels of Anthony Trollope, all recognizably members of the same family. This repeatability is an intrinsic feature of many narrative forms. It is the whole point of limericks that there be lots of them and that they all have a family resemblance. The same thing can be said of mystery stories. Variations from the norm draw much of their meaning from the fact that they are deviations from the rules. An example would be a detective story in which the narrator is the murderer, for example Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or a Victorian novel, such as Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, that unexpectedly has an unhappy ending.
The universality of this form of “the same in the different” in narrative has two implications. It implies that we want stories for something they can do for us, something we inexhaustibly need. It implies that this function is not performed primarily by the characters, the true-to-life setting, or even by the “theme” or “message,” the “moral,” but by the sequential structure of events, the plot. Aristotle, it seems, was right to give plot primacy in narrative. The plot structure of a given narrative seems to be transferable from one story to another with perhaps very different characters and setting. Plot is detachable, translatable…
Seen from this structuralist or semiotic perspective, narrative would be a process of ordering or reordering, recounting, telling again what has already happened or is taken to have already happened. This recounting takes place according to definite rules analogous to those rules by which we form sentences. This means that the secrets of storytelling are ascertainable by empirical or scientific investigation. This makes narrative theory part of “the human sciences.”…
This structuring of events according to a certain design of beginning, end, and conventional trajectory connecting them is, it should be stressed, by no means innocent. It does not take things as they come. Reordering by narrative may therefore have as its function, as I have suggested, the affirmation and reinforcement, even the creation, of the most basic assumptions of a culture about human existence, about time, destiny, selfhood, where we come from, what we ought to do while we are here, where we go—the whole course of human life. We need the “same” stories over and over, then, as one of the most powerful, perhaps the most powerful, of ways to assert the basic ideology of our culture.
What this all means is that human beings find comfort in how narratives (including visual narratives like television) affirm and reinforce how we perceive the world around us. Stories are how we learn about the world, how we make sense of our experiences. We get the “same” stories again and again because we have this sense of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and that’s very, very powerful.
I want to fixate for a moment on Miller’s last line here: We need the “same” stories over and over, then, as one of the most powerful, perhaps the most powerful, of ways to assert the basic ideology of our culture.
We can see that in our TV shows. One contemporary example is Friends, which is nothing more than a rip-off of Queen Latifah’s Living Single. (We can’t call Friends a fanfiction of Living Single, as the former never gives due credit to or acknowledges the latter!) We also see this idea of the “same” stories reinforcing ideology in literature. One story that comes immediately to mind is The Help by Kathryn Stockett. The author is a white woman who allegedly took the story of her brother’s housekeeper. (Call me radical or naïve or whatever, but I believe Albene Cooper.)
What I’m trying to get at is that the stories that become very popular tend to become a sort of propagandist tool—they reinforce and reaffirm the ideologies of the majority. This is yet another reason I insist that reading widely and diversely is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Ideology is not necessarily a bad thing. It becomes a bad thing when it normalizes cultural appropriation, plagiarism, and/or violence against particular groups or people, and reinforces harmful or oppressive ideas such as stereotypes. (See Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”)
At this point, you’re probably asking yourself why I titled this blog “On the Joys of Rereading” if I’m just taking time to ruin that joy.
I’m really not.
As a person who is excruciatingly aware of ideology and the roles it plays, and how that ideology is replicated and reinforced, I still find joy in rereading. Recognizing those bits of ideology, and being able to look at those critically, only prove that I can enjoy that work without falling into a trap. I can watch Friends, knowing it’s a rip-off of Living Single, and still enjoy it. The trick is to not believe that this is the only representation, the only form of this story. It’s just pushing a different culture, one of which I am more familiar with, having grown up with that ideology pressing in at all sides.
Writers write what they know (or pretend to know), and that’s the knowledge that gets passed on to readers.
So when someone watches a foreign film or reads a foreign book, they probably aren’t going to understand all those little nuances. More importantly, someone watching a film or reading a book from their own home country probably won’t get all those little nuances; and if they do, they wouldn’t be able to pick them out and explain them to a foreigner. For example, if I, who struggles to understand the nuances of the task, asked a British office worker why they were making tea for the whole building, they’d give me a funny look, as though to say, “Well…it’s quite normal!”
The joy of rereading comes from finding and learning about those ideological and cultural nuances. Little doses of culture at a time.