On Rereading Favorite Books
With age come new levels of understanding and appreciation
One never steps into the same river twice, noted the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, and surely the same can be said of books. Reading may be a pleasure, but rereading is a revelation. Or, paraphrasing the literary critic Harold Bloom, reading King Lear at age 20 plants a seed that may flower when the play is read again at 50.
I know that’s true for me, but not for the obvious reasons. What I have found most changes my understanding of a book I already know comes from neither some acquired wisdom regarding human nature nor from any particular insights into the eccentricities our species so excel in. Rather, what casts a new light on old favorites is a different conception of time and a deeper understanding of the complex relationship between our behavior and time.
That life can change in a heartbeat is something most of us, if attentive, learn when we are young. One opens a door, crosses a street, accepts an invitation, and suddenly, things are transformed. A single meal, a single day, a single encounter can restructure the scaffolding of one’s life in an instant. Just one example: A fortuitous seating plan that put me next to a respected editor at a lunch I once attended last minute led, over the years, to a series of challenging assignments, a trip to Finland and an enduring friendship.
But what astonishes me most now is how the accretion of time and accumulation of days shapes perception and experience. Time is a full participant in human endeavor, shaping our thoughts, words and actions.
Or maybe another way to say it is that the meaning of the events and encounters that shape our lives tend to become clear long after the fact. Certainly this is what Ralph Waldo Emerson was suggesting when he wrote in his 1844 essay "Experience" that “If any of us knew what we were doing, or where we are going, then when we think we best know! We do not know today whether we are busy or idle. In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered that much was accomplished and much was begun in us.”
His observation applied exactly to an impromptu swim I took in the Hudson River one summer morning for pure pleasure. But it took me — in the months and years that followed — to an ordered and considered exploration of how American rivers and the communities on their shores had been restored. That the value of human experience can only be reliably gauged long after the fact was a sentiment entirely out of reach to me when I first read Emerson 30 years ago.
And the finality of some of life’s decisions was not as clear to me in my 20s as it was later. When I first followed Newland Archer into that early evening gloam as he strolled slowly away from Madame Olenska’s Paris house in the final pages of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, it was with impatience, chagrin and dismay. “Go back!” I found myself begging him in frustration. “Get in the lift to the fifth floor, ring the bell, turn back the clock — if it is the woman of your greatest passion, it’s not too late.”
Only on subsequent reading did the irrevocability of our choices become clear to me. When young, one can have utmost confidence in the notion of second chances, fully grasping only afterward that these may not always be offered.
Along with classic essays and fiction, even a cookbook can blossom, as Harold Bloom suggested, in the imagination on second or third reading. When I was in college, my mother gave me a copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, published in 1942. Thrown in with advice on how to prepare dinner during a blackout and make do with vanilla wafers and canned beef gravy comes the sentence “Everything resolves itself into a feeling that you will survive if you are meant to survive, and every cell in your body believes that.”
The first time around, I read the cookbook as a hymn to wartime economy. The second time, I understood that when deprivation continues for a matter of years, a different manner of sustenance is required, and it becomes a cumulative enterprise. And that when nourishment is a question of rations portioned out in aggregates over weeks and months, the most crucial ingredients may be grace and decency.
Fisher’s instruction that extravagance and a sense of measure can go hand in hand was something I didn’t quite get until later in life when I realized it could apply to everything from the days spent cooking a Thanksgiving dinner for 16 to the years spent raising a child.
When I first read books like these, it was in anticipation of the life in front of me. More likely now to read in retrospection, I have some recognition of time’s mercurial character. It may be nothing more than an intuitive understanding of how some things change and evolve with time while other things become irrevocable and intractable, but it is a realization that comes only with age, and it is something that informs — or rather, transforms — my reading now.
The pleasures of revisiting and rethinking known books rest on this. “Everything is gestation,” Rilke wrote to the young poet a century ago, and while he was addressing the younger man’s desire to write, I find it as useful a directive on how to read, and even more, reread.