Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Company I Chose to Keep at That Time'

Nothing is so heartening as learning of a young person who already loves to read but who is impatient with “crappy” (her word) books and asks for the titles of good ones. At her age (she’s a university undergraduate here in Texas), I was an omnivore and more naïve and forgiving than she. I had little idea what was mandatory to read, what was optional and what deserved to be avoided. I had no one to ask. She doesn’t trust the taste of most of her instructors, suggesting wisdom beyond her years. She writes:

“You often blog about rereading books, sometimes many times. Those are the kind of books I’m interested in.”

A list of rereadable books is by definition idiosyncratic, even strange and off-putting. I read A.J. Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962) every year but shelve the title in precisely one canon: my own. That’s the nature of serious reading. It’s fair to assume that all dedicated readers will get around to Dante, Shakespeare and Proust. Beyond that, the field is pretty much wide-open. In Conversations with William Maxwell (ed. Barbara Burkhardt, 2012), the novelist tells an interviewer his favorite writers when he was young were Yeats, Edwin Arlington Robinson, E.E. Cummings, Elinor Wylie and Walter de la Mare – an idiosyncratic, interesting and respectable list, though I have a feeling thousands of well-read people have little or no familiarity with at least several of those names. Maxwell goes on:

“Then I settled down mostly to fiction. I spent two years reading hardly anything but Colette. Another two years with Elizabeth Bowen. Then Hardy. Forster. Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. James. When I finished Tolstoy’s Master and Man, and came to the description of the dead horse with his mouth full of snow, I felt like getting down on my knees to Tolstoy. It struck me as close to the center of existence as it is possible to come in writing. Nabokov, also, two years. It wasn’t so much that I got something from them, though of course I did, as that they were the company I chose to keep at that time.”

I’ve read only four writers in the way Maxwell describes – that is, through exclusive immersion in their work: Shakespeare, Austen, Melville and Henry James. All of them I reread with some regularity – Shakespeare most often, Austen least. Would I recommend my practice for my young reader or anyone else? Of course not. She’ll work out her own way of doing things. It’s important not to be intimidated and not to assume other readers know what they’re talking about. Develop readerly instincts, learn to trust them and ignore literary fashions. In his essay “The Constant Rereader’s Five-Foot Shelf” (Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s, 1975), L.E. Sissman encourages all of us, seasoned readers and tyros:

“A list of books that you reread is like a clearing in the forest: a level, clean, well-lighted place where you set down your burdens and set up your home, your identity, your concerns, your continuity in a world that is at best indifferent, at worst malign. Since you, the reader, are that hero of modern literature, the existential loner, the smallest denominator of moral force, it behooves you to take counsel, sustenance, and solace from the writers who have been writing about you these hundred or five hundred years, to sequester yourself with their books and read and reread them to get a fix on yourself and a purchase on the world that will, with luck, like the house in the clearing, last you for life.”


Cal Gough said...

Thanks for visiting (re-visiting?) one of my favorite topics of the bookish life: What To Read Again. And for bringing to my attention the 2012 book about Maxwell (one of my - and I think your - favorite writers). I've posted a link to your blogpost to The Atlanta Booklover's Blog (

slr in tx said...


If you haven't done so already, you should give a listen to Ralph Richardson's Desert Island Discs over at the BBC Radio 4. It's delightful for so many reasons, (not least of which is listening to the mellifluous voices of e Richardson and Roy Plomley) but I think you'll be pleased by Sir Ralph's choice of reading material.

Tim Guirl said...

What interests me is the different effect a book has when reread at different times in one's life. I first read War and Peace as a young man over many nights, lying in my bunk on a U.S. Navy ship as the deck guns were firing overhead at enemy positions during the Vietnam War. Now as an old man I am rereading it in the peace and quiet of my home. Same book, same translation, but a very different experience.