Read, And Read Again

Liesl Schillinger and Dana Stevens reflect on the usefulness of that habit that nearly every reader cultivates:  the habit of re-reading authors we’ve encountered before.  Schillinger’s comments focus on her specific encounter with Hemingway and she concludes, you’ll notice, with a very Hemingwayesque passage of her own.  Stevens’ remarks are more general but, they, too, provide some helpful insights.  I especially liked her description of the two kinds of readers:

“I was in my early 20s, at the start of a doctoral program in literature and just beginning to realize that for the first time in my experience, being a “good reader” — which then meant, in my narrow understanding of the term, a relatively speedy, indiscriminately voracious, knowledge-­accumulating kind of reader — might not be enough to sustain me in my intellectual and professional life. All around me, it soon became clear, were examples of a different kind of reader, people (some of them professors, some colleagues and friends, some critics I knew only on the page) who read slowly but intensely, who measured their encounters with the written word in depth rather than in volume. These were readers who could spelunk into the literary and philosophical abyss and come back with insights that made me want to follow them down on their next expedition.”

My professor, Arnold Stein, teacher of Milton, was one of those “slow” readers.  Mind you, by the time my group of grad students got to his classes, he had already read everything worth reading in the field; that is, he’d already passed through a “voracious” period of his own.  But when we studied under him and read criticism written by him, we were all impressed by the Reevesian depth of his reading.  He could take a passage from Milton–just a few lines–or a phrase or two from a poem of Donne’s, and show us not only the Renaissance habit of mind that the poets’ original audience would have brought to the poems, but also the daring, the provocative nature of what Donne and Milton were doing with their language and their ideas as they began to challenge and attempt to overthrow that cultural mind.

None of us, I believe, will ever lose our willingness to be voracious readers.  But we do slow down as far as the numbers of books we read per year is concerned.  That development may cut us off from the trends of the moment, but what we do read, we tend to read very well; and that newly-formed habit often pays off in some unexpected ways, particularly in being able to link a contemporary work with a book we’ve read long ago.  This blog, in fact, is, I hope, a kind of testament of that kind of  connected reading, as I seek to roam among books old and new, looking always for the fresh (because we must all live in the present moment), but alert also for the ways in which the old are still valuable, and may have already said what the new book often struggles to say.


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