Wednesday, September 12, 2012

`The Books Which Everyone Else Only Studies'

How to read is the last thing one learns.” 

I’ve noticed a tendency among some readers to romanticize the books of childhood, the ones they read early or at least pretend to have read. Some claim to go on reading them as adults, snuggling up with Make Way for Ducklings in lieu of The Wings of the Dove. The intent is to impress us with their childlike zest for living. No putting away childish things for them. I miss some of those books, too, but what I really miss is reading them aloud to my kids, even silly, half-sung titles like Shake Dem Halloween Bones and There Once Was a Man Named Michael Finnegan, and books by my friend Fran Manushkin like Let George Do It! and The Shivers in the Fridge! But one’s tastes mature, innocence is lost and reading becomes a more complicated and seemingly solitary occupation.

The sentence quoted at the top is from Nicolás Gómez Dávila, the Colombian aphorist better known as Don Colacho. He confirms a suspicion I’ve long held, that learning to read is a protracted, possibly lifelong process. Recently, I heard a grade-school teacher, the sort who confuses fortune-cookie platitudes with the wisdom of the ages, say, “Reading is like learning to ride a bicycle. You never forget.” That’s true only if your idea of riding a bike is forever coasting downhill.

I’m certain my reading has evolved, and not merely from the age of fifteen when I could still read science fiction. Some crushes are fickle and mercifully brief – Stephen Dixon’s fiction, in my case, and the novels of William Gaddis. One loses patience with pretentiousness and stylized incoherence. On the other hand, my experience of reading Shakespeare for more than forty years is distilled in another of Don Colacho’s aphorisms: “Only he who suggests more than what he expresses can be reread.” Good, receptive, adventurous, pleasure-seeking readers inevitably evolve into rereaders. Beware the drudges, hacks and pleasure-killing drones for whom books are medicine to be obtained only by prescription. Don Colacho says: “True reading is an escape. The other type is an occupation.” And then there’s the sweetest reading of all, when we read in silent unison with generations of earlier readers, and Don Colacho has something to say about that, too:

“An authentic reader is someone who reads for pleasure the books which everyone else only studies.”

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