“If we strictly follow Hazlitt's advice as you have included it, then how do we ever get around to reading anything so that something serves as the antecedent to which we eagerly return?”
There’s only one way to answer R.T. Davis’ question, posed in a comment to my post on Monday: We don’t. Reading is at least as idiosyncratic as writing. Some read deeply and over time in a single genre or form; some only at the beach. Some begin as hunter-gatherers and remain so, reading strictly for sustenance. I started as an omnivore and as decades passed found my palate grew more discriminating. I lost my taste for literary fast food – say, science fiction and anything by Doris Lessing, especially her science fiction – and sought both nutrition and pleasure (for some readers, a contradiction in terms).
My book-diet has left me strong and healthy, with a few nagging deficiencies among some of the vitamins and minerals – Chinese literature, for instance, and Scandinavian. A return to Coleridge or Chekhov is a painless booster shot. A long habit of reading furnishes one’s imaginative, intellectual and moral lives. One always senses the ghostly presence of book, even when not reading or in their company. If you don’t read with some dedication when young, you’ll probably never know the mellow bliss of rereading (for some readers, again, a contradiction in terms). Hazlitt begins his essay like this:
“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.”
Let’s make allowances for provocation – Hazlitt recognized a good lead when he saw one – but there’s truth here. I’ve never counted but I move with regularity, like Kant in Königsberg, within a small radius -- though surely more than 30 titles. And the books I most look forward to reading are ones I’ve already read, sometimes more than once – A Dance to the Music of Time, for instance. I’m not philosophically opposed to new books. Rather, I’m jealous of my reading time and don’t want to squander it on books whose only likely virtue is a recent copyright. Most of the literary blogosphere is lost on me because its attention usually is focused on the recently or soon-to-be published. There are new books I eagerly await – in particular Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Prose, scheduled for publication next year by Ecco. But even Herbert, dead almost 11 years is, as Hazlitt says, “an old, tried, and valued friend.”
As to “the `superior’ judgment of the reader (yours truly) who teaches literature” mentioned by Davis: I would sooner ask my dentist for a book recommendation than most college professors. Leave the last word to Hazlitt:
“To have lived in the cultivation of an intimacy with such works, and to have familiarly relished such names, is not to have lived quite in vain.”