07 July 2017

The really awesome book don’t go bad if you know what happens. That’s because they are intricate enough that there is still a lot to be experienced on a second, third and fourth read.

Just like poetry, great prose keeps on giving the more you read it. And great movies keep on giving the more you watch them.

I recently re-read Hemingway’s “The old man and the sea.” I already knew what happens. Let me “spoil” it for you. An old fisherman from Havana goes out into the sea to fish, following twelve weeks of bad luck. He catches an enormous swordfish, and spends a lot of time until he can pull the fish out. Ultimately, the fish is too big for the boat, and sharks eat it before he can reach the shore. Life goes on.

If you’re interested in the sequence of events, I just saved you hours of reading of the book. But if you read the book, and read it again some time later, you start noticing other things.

For example, Santiago, the old man, refers to things as if they are to people. Most fish are “him”, and the sea is “her”. This shows enormous humility towards nature. He goes on to say he loves the swordfish he caught, and that the fish is his brother, but he needs to kill the fish. He does the killing without anger or hate. He realizes that’s the way of nature, even if the way of nature involves the boat, the fishing line, and the harpoon.

And also, while he has this great reverence for nature, he realizes his role as a human. He can control his pain and thus overcome the fish. He also is reflective of his own thought process and the dangers of going insane from the strain and lack of sleep. He’s rational.

But all these observations don’t jump out on the first read. On the first read, the story takes the central stage. The fight with the fish and the perseverance, and the remoteness of the sea, are what grabs our attention. We are rooting for Santiago, and also feel the fear and adrenalin of the adventure.

On subsequent reads we are a bit more detached and can see some of the subtler things. As we uncover more and more details, we peel another layer of understanding and we start to add personal reflections to our interpretation. The perseverance of Santiago becomes a metaphor for our own attempts at that long run or bike ride, the humanization of animals becomes something we start doing to pets and other animals and it cause us to be more relaxed in their presence.

Further re-reads will further shift our focus from the story towards ourselves. Reading again and again becomes more and more an experience, and less and less an acquisition of information. That’s why you can’t spoil and experience with knowing what happens.

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