“Hello, Old Friend, Time To Read You Again,” by Christopher B. Nelson. The Wall Street Journal, 12/16/2015.
A good book is very much like a mirror: The glass is the same year after year, but the reflection in it changes over time. . . .
One of the things we discover as we mature is that the familiar is really quite unfamiliar.
As the Christmas season approaches, we are flooded with announcements, reviews, and recommendations of new books, so many that we forget about the pleasures of the books already on our shelves. Many of us feel rereading them is a hidden pleasure, an atavistic indulgence not worth mentioning. Bragging is only for reading the latest books, ones that show how voguish we are. But, we should be equally proud of those we reread for the second time—or third—or more.
Nelson points out that the first reading is always a pressured reading. At the first reading, we do not yet know the landscape and are on the edge of our seats trying to see what’s coming. At the reread, we already know the big picture and can focus on the details that we skimmed over the first time. Any good book deserves at least one rereading.
For a good book full of facts that I want to remember (like Karen Armstrong’s A History of God), I read several times and finish with a written summary. The first reading is to get the lay of the land, as Nelson would say. I then reread, highlighting the facts I want to remember. At a third time through, I pull the highlights together into a prose summary that runs about 25,000 words, about 40 pages. (At my age, it takes that much to remember something.) A year or so later, I find a prose summary much more inviting than an outline. Since the summary is a Word document, I can use the search function to find specific items.
It is not just books that deserve to be reread. Part of the reason I write this blog is to remember and to keep track of articles like this. The rereading and writing helps cement it in my memory and leaves a searchable database for the times my memory fails. I often reread this blog myself as a reminder of past epiphanies. Both The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker websites have archives accessible to subscribers, so I can easily get back to the original without even searching through boxes in my attic (as I once did).
I only summarize a few books in detail (I have about 20 and don’t plan any more at this age). Most books I simply reread for pleasure, with my trusty highlighter in hand, knowing the landscape, focusing now on the details. An example is Mark Twain’s Roughing It. I am not a big fan of Twain’s over-the-top humor, but this early work describes his long journey out west on a stage coach. That was possible for only a short time in our history when stage coach routes became available but before they were forced out of business by the new railroads.
Did you know they (the men) often rode on the top of the stage coach during the heat of the day, through an empty landscape, in their underwear? You won’t see John Wayne do that in the old cowboy movies.
I even doubt they left their underwear on. I think Twain was being gentle with his readers.