I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire ever to read at all…. When I take up a work that I have read before (the oftener the better) I know what I have to expect. The satisfaction is not lessened by being anticipated. When the entertainment is altogether new, I sit down to it as I should to a strange dish, – turn and pick out a bit here and there, and am in doubt what to think of the composition….
Besides, in thus turning to a well-known author, there is not only an assurance that my time will not be thrown away, or my palate nauseated with the most insipid or vilest trash, – but I shake hands with, and look an old, tried, and valued friend in the face, – compare notes, and chat the hours away. It is true, we form dear friendships with such ideal guests – dearer, alas! and more lasting, than those with our most intimate acquaintance.
William Hazlitt, ‘On reading old books’ (1817).
Still, if the writing doesn’t change, we do. We reread, sometimes, to test ourselves, to see who we’ve become. There are writers we tried too young…. Reading’s so invisible an art, we forget that we’ve gotten better at it. Books still baffle us occasionally, but not nearly so often, and there are reasons for this bafflement – we’re in a bum frame of mind, or the book’s too technical for someone with our background, or maybe it’s just written badly. In short, we’ve learned specific tricks, as well, how to adjust our reading style to the oages at hand. We slow-dance with some, others we ride like breaking waves. A few we don’t go near without protective gear. It wasn’t until I was loose in that no-man’s land after college that two of the more blindingly obvious illuminations struck me: That I couldn’t read EVERY book (and could leave off torturing myself). And that, life being short, I could just plain quit a book if I wanted. Blasphemy!
David Long, ‘On rereading’ (1987).
Unfortunately there was the problem that even if you read everything, you don’t read it as the same person. When he first read The Iliad, the opening was just the opening: an explanation. The anger of Achilles: people always thought it referred to Achilles’ rage at losing his favourite slave-girl or his sidekick Patroclus.
When he had read it first at eleven, he hadn’t read it. At seventeen when he reapplied it was beginning to come into focus. Yet only when he was thirty and he had been stuck in a lift, and had gone in for the third time had the meaning dripped through like portly raindrops infiltrating a roof.
Tibor Fischer, ‘Bookcruncher’ (2001).
There you have it. Three different perspectives from three different centuries, on the subject of rereading. Which is the one closest to yours, I wonder.
And if you are not opposed to the habit of rereading, which would be the books that you are most likely to return to most often? Or rather, what is the book you are most wanting to reread right now?