An acquaintance asks R.T. Davis at Books and Notes: “Can you recommend a good book to read?” – a seemingly simple question so difficult to answer, one to which I reply with more questions: Fiction or nonfiction? Poetry or prose? English or translation? How serious and experienced a reader are we dealing with? Do we suggest something challenging or, like Kessler, smooth as silk? Not knowing Davis’ acquaintance, we’re left dealing with an abstraction, a Platonic Reader of unknown qualities.
My instinct is to recommend a bona fide classic, something road-tested by generations of readers – Catullus, say, or Maimonides, Montaigne or Shakespeare. Such a suggestion carries with it an implied compliment: You can handle this, no sweat, no Stephen King for you. But what if they feel they can’t handle it and end up turning their failure of confidence into resentment against you, the innocent recommender of books? Then you’ve sacrificed not only a reader but a potential friend. Of course, the same risk applies if you go in the other direction and suggest a creampuff of a book. Then they think you’re condescending to them. William Hazlitt, in his 1821 essay “On Reading Old Books,” proposes a sensible solution:
“In reading a book which is an old favourite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of the critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are landmarks and guides in our journey through life. They are pegs and loops on which we can hang up, or from which we can take down, at pleasure, the wardrobe of a moral imagination, the relics of our best affections, the tokens and records of our happiest hours.”
There it is: Ask your acquaintance to select an “old favourite,” a book he or she once read with delight and still recalls with pleasure, but one never read a second time. The result could be pleasure doubled, or a new sort of pleasure, more nuanced, redolent of earlier selves, “landmarks and guides,” “pegs and loops.” If someone were to work this gambit on me (though I’m already a frequent rereader) I might return to Little Dorritt (a Dickens title I read early but have not reread), or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a gift from my grandmother when I was a boy, one that impressed all those years ago with the clarity of its language and its immense popularity over the centuries. “Happiest hours.”