Monday, January 2, 2017

Taking time to read great books

Readers, especially young readers hungry for knowledge and experience, pledge to read dozens of books this year, but I think that they should plan to re-read at least 10 books a year which they like. There is no way to take in everything from a simple reading of a book. Re-reading books we find that superficial books are boring at second reading, when we already know what is going to happen. Really good books, however, are much more exciting when we reread them. We discover a great many insights, great phrases which we had missed the first time and we find deeper meanings also because we are already familiar with the context. Good books become better at each reading, there is no way to get everything out from a good book at a single reading. As bad books become worse, and good book become better, we also learn to tell apart what is true and what is a lie. Lies are not so convincing at second reading. 

I read every year at least a few chapters from Stendhal, Balzac, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Swift, Defoe, Kleist and Pushkin – and of course Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the Bible of all good readers. Even after decades I still pick up new insights and if my own work is good and enriching it is then thanks to reading great literature every day and find about the technique of writing a detail I had earlier missed. 

If my work is any good, half of the credit goes to my rereading some great literature every day. Whenever I feel low, I reciter myself lines from Shakespeare, a Hungarian or English poem – mostly from Auden these days - to keep my spirits up. 

There are millions of books and there is no way to read everything, so it is more important to read a hundred great books over and over again. We can never know everything, it is much better to know fewer things, but at least know them well. I guess another way of putting it this is that it is more important to be wiser than well informed, in regard to books as well as everything else.

I became a missionary on the subject of re-reading on a Caruso beach in Mexico.
It was at the end of the school year in the USA, and there were many school leavers around from the southern states celebrating. I asked the kids what they wanted to read and most of them were going to college and were intending to study English. On one occasion about a group of thirty kids gathered around me learning that I was a novelist. I asked them what their favourite novel was. Not one of them could name the title of a single one. Finally a girl piped up, declaring proudly that she was reading novels all the time. I asked her for her favourite novels. “Oh, they are too many,” she said. I kept urging her to name some of them. After a long silence she then gave me a title of an Eugene O'Neill play, ‘Long days journey into night’. 

If you are interested in the subject I would like to hear your comments, hope to see next time.

1 comment:

Francis Berger said...

Dear Stephen,

Great post! Like you, I believe Shakespeare is of biblical importance for readers and writers alike. I also make it a point to reread some Shakespeare every year - there are still eleven plays I have yet to read - as well as a few of the other authors you list (Dostoevsky foremost among them).

Your views about rereading is a sound argument for quality over quantity, especially since the current class/race/gender issues obsessed literary establishment does not seem to agree with nor be particularly interested in this sensibility.

Not only do most people not reread the classics - they never read them at all! Most students enrolled in English or literature programs today can complete four years of undergraduate study without reading a line of Shakespeare or a single word written by the other authors you mentioned.

Of course, this is not news to you as you have been a vocal critic of literature programs and their neglect of great books for many, many years.

The world needs more voices like yours . . . and then read and reread great works of literature.