Posted On 02 May 2012
Is rereading books for enjoyment a good idea?
I recently sent queries to book bloggers to see if they wanted a copy to review of a novel of mine that is coming out next month. It was striking to notice how many of them referred to themselves in various ways as being addicted to reading.
One of the bloggers happened to mention to me that she never reread a novel in her life. Is that a good idea?
I wonder if habitually reading novels is a good idea. Is habitually reading books for enjoyment a good idea?
People who don’t read regularly have a tendency to stay stuck on the same thoughts, which, since the world is in flux, cannot be a good practice. On the other hand, don’t some people read too much? Presumably there’s a middle way.
What is at issue here is only reading for enjoyment. Obviously, if you are a Descartes scholar, you’d better have read Meditations on First Philosophy many, many times. If you are an editor who gets paid to edit books, that’s a different matter.
My inclination is to exclude poetry as well. If you don’t have some favorite poems that you have read many times, shame on you!
Furthermore, nobody knows many languages. Didn’t William Foxwell Albright know 25 languages (about half of which he deciphered himself)? If there’s an important book in a language you don’t read, it’s certainly a good idea to read different translations of it. In my case, this applies to such epics as The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid and Dante’s Comedy. I’ve read them in different translations and benefitted from each reading.
Many people are history buffs. Would someone who is a history buff of the American Civil War reread certain histories of it? He or she would likely read many different histories of it for enjoyment, but probably not the same one.
Does anyone read classical works of mathematics, logic, and science? Certainly. Do they, however, ever reread them for enjoyment? That’s very unlikely.
So in thinking about this topic, let’s think only about rereading novels. Aren’t they the books most likely to be reread for enjoyment?
I’m presently reading Jane Erye for the first time. It was my mother’s favorite book when she was a girl. I seem to recall her telling me that she reread it many times. If so, I can understand that. It’s a genuine work of literature.
Notice that you would never reread pulp fiction such as mysteries, thrillers, or romances. Unless you forgot them completely, once you know what happens, what would be the point of rereading them?
For example, I myself have read all the Tarzan novels, all the Sherlock Holmes stories, all the Dashiell Hammett novels, and all the Nero Wolfe stories. At the time I read them (many years ago), I enjoyed reading them. I have no interest ever rereading them.
Life is short. Every experience has an opportunity cost: time you devote to reading pulp fiction is time that cannot be spent doing anything else.
Thinking about reading novels again for enjoyment leads to other questions.
What’s the difference between pulp fiction and literature?
Nobody would seriously argue that one ought to spend time rereading pulp fiction. It would make sense to reread at least good examples of it only if you wanted to write it yourself. If you wanted, for example, to write a thriller, a reasonable way to begin would be to read, and, possibly, to reread the last ten bestsellers that were thrillers or, perhaps, the ten all-time bestselling thrillers so that you could emulate them. That, though, would not be reading for enjoyment.
Eckhart Tolle argues somewhere that the difference in quality between pulp fiction and literature is that only literature is writing from “presence,” which is one of the ways he talks about the direct experience of Being, about the spiritually awakened life. That’s a very interesting idea.
If, though, it is correct, it is likely only to be a necessary rather than a sufficient condition. In other words, it’s possible to be spiritually awake and still not be a good storyteller. Putting it differently, even assuming Tolle is correct, it would still take talent and the development of talent for someone who is spiritually awake to create literature.
If that’s correct, it would go a long way towards explaining why literature is more valuable than pulp fiction. As when we witness great athletic feats or musical performances done from Presence, reading a novel that is a genuine work of literature can be a wonderful experience.
Still, is rereading novels that are works of literature valuable? That some of us do it is indisputable. It is optimizing or optimific to do it?
There’s no way to answer until we understand why certain kinds of activities are optimizing or optimific. To understand that is to become clear about the connection, if any, between reading literature and living well, living the good life.
If there were no connection, then neither reading literature in the first place nor rereading it would be justifiable. To argue that there is some connection would be making some assumptions about both the nature of literature and the nature of living well.
Let’s assume that a novel is a work of literature only if it has been written from Being and also demonstrates talent as well as mastery of the art of storytelling.
What is living well?
If Tolle and other spiritual teachers are correct, living well is living in Becoming from the perspective of Being, in other words, experiencing life in Becoming without being trapped in Becoming, being spiritually awake.
If that’s what living well is, it is not even necessary to be literate to live well! If so, obviously, reading even novels that are literature is not necessary for living well.
Nevertheless, reading novels that are literature may be helpful for living well. If so, then rereading them may be justifiable.
Great novels are centered on great conflicts. My own tendency is to read them as indirect arguments, as gentle expositions of a point of view that emerges from an important struggle.
Great novels often show us how not to live, which is a way of suggesting a better way to live. Eliminating different possibilities that fail is certainly a socializing, civilizing task.
Literature enables us to experience life vicariously from the perspective of other people. It undermines prejudices and fosters identification with others. Since spiritual awakening requires bursting the normal boundaries of ego or self, reading literature can prepare the soil for the flowering of awakening, and, so, be an important educational tool.
This is neither a new nor a radical idea. For example, Charlotte Bronte has Jane Eyre think: “Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.” A function of literature is to break down conceptual barriers between people, which enables us to become more loving.
Similarly, paraphrasing what Wittgenstein said about language, David Loy writes: “The limits of my stories are the limits of my world.” Since literature expands the boundaries of our worlds, it expands the boundaries of our lives. This is because, as Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”
What about spiritual awakening? Alan Clements: “The only true story is ‘no story’ and therefore one must dissolve into the one and only freedom – the ultimate nonstory – that of union with emptiness, or zeroness, or nirvana . . . “ Literature cannot get us there, but it can enable progress.
What about repetition? When we fail to learn a lesson, doesn’t life give us the opportunity to relearn it?
It can be quicker and less painful to learn and, if necessary, relearn about life lessons from books rather than outside them. At least if you are like me, you may have a tendency not to understand one of life’s important lessons at the first opportunity you have to learn it. It may require re-exposure.
If so, at least sometimes, it may be a good idea to reread novels that are works of literature. There’s nothing necessarily wrong about rereading books for enjoyment.
Doing it too frequently is a hindrance to living well, but, since literature can aid the journey to living well, rereading it occasionally may well be helpful.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from this, please forward it.