How peculiar that one’s reading habits should irritate another reader. We all belong to the same club, right? Dedicated to perpetuating literacy in a dimming age? Sharing the pleasures of reading at all scales, from comma to canon? Perhaps I’m naïve. In some, the temptation to police and regulate is powerful, a sort of hunger or lust, whereas the impulse to read and revel in books is by nature antiauthoritarian. Readers are freebooters, each a non-aligned sovereignty. One reader of Anecdotal Evidence brands me “an old foggy [sic]” and a reactionary for “reading all those old books.” I don’t read enough new books, he tells me, I “waste too much time reading books you read before,” and so forth. Similar notes arrive periodically and they leave me, at first, puzzled, and then amused. I suppose I should be grateful that someone cares enough about books to get angry about them.
In two books I’ve been lately rereading I find similar defenses of reading a poem, and by extension any work of literature, twice, or three times, or more. The first is written by Gerald Brenan (1894-1987), author of The Spanish Labyrinth and longtime friend to V.S. Pritchett. Brenan writes in Thoughts in a Dry Season: A Miscellany (1978):
“There is a simple rule for distinguishing between what is great poetry and what is not great poetry. Does one read it again and again? Does it affect us more the better we know it? Judged by this test, great poetry is something that occurs from time to time when good poets write verse. That is to say, it is hardly ever found continuously in long passages, and if it were it would stun and exhaust the reader.”
Common-sense, field-ready, foolproof criticism. Does anyone read Charles Olson twice? Of course not. Not even Olson. Norman Mailer? Joyce Carol Oates? Case closed. The other defense of rereading – a celebration, really – comes from “A Suspect Captivity of the Fisher King,” a lecture delivered in 1988 by Les Murray and collected in The Paperbark Tree: Selected Prose (Carcanet, 1992):
“Any true work of art is inexhaustible in its suggestions, its implications and its recoveries of freshness; the potentials for commentary on it and interpretation of it are therefore infinite. This is a form of infinite regress, but probably only becomes questionable if taxpayers are being asked to fund it.”
One reliable test of any work is memorability. Do we remember it, even memorize it? Not often, but always happily. The present is a very small place, a place of diminished accomplishment and minimal expectations. Our wealth is in the past. No book is good or worth reading simply because it is old (or new), but because it is good and someone thought enough of it to pass it along.