Saturday, August 11, 2018

Re-reading

“I hate to read new books.”

So begins William Hazlitt’s essay “On Reading Old Books.” ....

There are, of course, good new books and bad old books. But the sheer volume of what is published—an issue since the invention of the printing press, even if more insistent now given the rise of new technologies—makes the work of winnowing wheat from chaff difficult, and time is finite. ....

First, it is a truism that old books that are still read have stood the test of time.... As Hazlitt says, with nice understatement, “I do not think altogether the worse of a book for having survived the author a generation or two.” As Lewis would write over a century later, “A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it.” ....

The books we love while young contribute to our development as individuals in no more imaginary a way than learning to ride a bike or the first day of middle school does. The enjoyment they yield, in other words, is not empty: these books play a part in the formation of our memories, the pattern we discern as our lives unfold, and therefore help to constitute our very selves. Hazlitt says this explicitly: “In reading a book which is an old favourite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it.” In fact, re-reading one’s favorite books can serve in some ways as dreamlike time travel, or even an otherwise impossible bilocation, in which we can—for a brief moment—simultaneously put one foot in our past and another in our present. ....