The very young, at bedtime, never tire of hearing yet one more rendition of “Goodnight Moon,” as sleepy parents well know. Later on, kids gravitate to series titles, racing through the Wimpy Kid’s misadventures, one Sweet Valley High paperback after another, or that supreme test of a young reader’s skill, the seven volumes of Harry Potter.
In adolescence, we enter the era of competitive reading. During my own high school days fat paperbacks of “Gone With the Wind,” “Stranger in a Strange Land” and “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” were passed around school hallways. Now, it might be “Infinite Jest.” Page count, after all, confers cachet. In ninth grade, I doggedly worked my way through a two-volume history of English literature mainly to show off.
College is dominated by required reading. In those years, we don’t read, we take notes, we highlight and underline. Study grows into a weariness of the flesh. In the evenings, we dutifully trot over to the library, spread our books out on an oak seminar table, open Paul Samuelson’s “Economics” to Chapter 3 and then gently lower our heads onto our pillowy backpacks.
Once we finally graduate, we store our college texts in our parents’ attic and never look at them again. For the next few decades, the bestseller list governs much of our reading, even much of our thinking. Every generation, for instance, boasts its particular nonfiction guru. Once it was Vance Packard — remember “The Status Seekers” and “The Hidden Persuaders”? — and now it’s Malcolm Gladwell. Glamorous sex never fails to attract a voyeuristic audience, whether it’s Elinor Glyn’s “Three Weeks” in 1907, Harold Robbins’s “The Carpetbaggers” in 1961 or more recently,“Fifty Shades of Grey.” Of new and revolutionary diet and self-help books, there is no end. As good citizens, we conscientiously buy the campaign biographies of would-be presidents and even the self-justifying memoirs of actual presidents. Within a year or two, you can’t give them away at a yard sale.
Still, some folks discover the secret to thwarting the meretricious allure of the evanescently contemporary. Instead of picking up new books, they go back to old favorites. There are people who every year reread “The Lord of the Rings” or Jane Austen’s six novels or the complete adventures of Sherlock Holmes or all the plays of Shakespeare. My favorite college professor reread “Madame Bovary” whenever he taught the novel, which was essentially every year for three decades. He said that each time he found something new in it. Oscar Wilde contended that if a book wasn’t worth reading over and over again, it wasn’t worth reading at all.
That’s probably true, even as I confess — hangs head in shame — that I’ve almost never reread a book unless I had to. “Had to” means because I was teaching the book or because a publisher was paying me to write an introduction to it. This means, in effect, that I’ve reread maybe 40 or 50 books in as many years. I exclude poetry because I do go back to a few dozen anthology standards pretty regularly. I can’t help it: They nourish my soul.
Why don’t I reread more often? After all, works of art only spring into being when we are actively engaged with them. Once you close a book, finish listening to a piece of music or walk away from a painting, it quickly dims into a mere memory. We no longer feel, we only remember its power and beauty.
For good or ill, I simply remain obsessed with what I’ve never yet read. Even now I approach unfamiliar books with the eager anticipation of a child on Christmas morning. I loved Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji,” but could the analogous Chinese classic, Cao Xueqin’s “The Story of the Stone,” be just as good? Like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I want to run and find out.
Knowing that, as a reader, “I may not pass this way again,” I try to make my first experience of a book as complete as possible. I subvocalize every word so that my throat is raspy at the end of the day. I scribble in the margins and mark key passages. Halfway through a novel I might flip back to Chapter 1 to check a point or verify an allusion. Such close attention does come at a cost: Instead of surrendering to a novel’s spell, I’m constantly suspicious and on the alert. If something seems a bit odd or unnecessary, I figure it’s actually vital and important: As Chekhov famously observed, a dramatist only mentions a loaded gun in Act 1 if somebody is going to fire it later on.
One sure sign that a reader has reached old age is that he or she loses interest in new fiction. Seen it all. Been there, done that. It’s then that people nearly always do return to the books they loved when young, hoping for a breath of springtime as the autumn winds blow. And if they aren’t rereading “Treasure Island” or “The Secret Garden”? Then it’s likely to be the Bible, Plato’s dialogues or Montaigne’s essays because these inexhaustible classics address nothing less than the meaning of life, which really means, of course, the meaning of our own lives.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.