I’m grateful to Verlyn Klinkenborg in More Scenes from the Rural Life (Princeton Architectural Press, 2013) for precisely articulating my notion of reading. The first reading of a book is strictly exploratory. Most can then be stamped “CANCELED,” meaning discarded for good, never to be reread. Such evaluations, of course, are subject to appeal and in special circumstances a book can be readmitted to one’s personal library (which is not identical to the books on one’s shelf). In a narrow sense, there is no such thing as rereading. We are not, I hope, the person we were forty years or three months ago. Potentially, it’s a new book when we pick it up again, though verdicts tend to be final. We read John Steinbeck so we never have to read him again.
“But the real rereading I mean,” Klinkenborg writes, “is savory rereading, the books I have to be careful not to reread too often so I can read them again with pleasure. It’s a miscellaneous library, always shifting.” Klinkenborg gives us a sample of his savories, which overlap sparingly with my own: Raymond Chandler, A.J. Liebling and George Eliot, but not Michael Herr or much of Dickens. “There are more titles, of course. This isn’t a canon. This is a refuge.” I like that qualification. The list is prescriptive only for me. How you choose to stock your refuge is your business. Mine is inhabited by, among others, Leopardi's Zibaldone, Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm, Michael Oakeshott’s Notebooks and Nabokov. Good books possess the paradoxical quality of mutating over time while retaining their essential character. Klinkenborg writes:
“The real secret to rereading is simply this: it’s impossible. The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the read always does. Pip is there to be revisited, but you, the reader, are a little like the convict who surprise him in the graveyard—always a stranger.”
[An earlier, somewhat different version of Klinkenborg’s essay, “Some Thoughts on the Pleasures of Being a Re-Reader,” was published in The New York Times in 2009.]