“9/10ths of the books you read are an absolute waste of time – the last tenth is indispensable. But only after the event – You cannot foresee which ones they are. It’s hit and miss.”
“After the event” – that is, after much experience honing taste and critical faculties. We can think of a serious reading life as roughly triangular, moving from base to apex. When young we read broadly, indiscriminately, obeying impulse, disdaining authority. Literally, we don’t know any better – James Baldwin, Tolkien, Steinbeck, Edgar Rice and William Burroughs, Camus, Allen Ginsberg, Pearl Buck, everything Hoovered into the goatish maw. Embarrassing but inevitable. Who is gifted from youth with taste and discernment?
By the time we mature as readers, the proportions reverse: Nine-tenths of what we read is indispensable because we have learned what to disdain and what sustains. We spend more time rereading. The passage above is from the second volume of Paul Valéry’s Cahiers/Notebooks (2000). When he wrote it in 1942, Valéry was age seventy-four, three years from death.